The ash on the foreheads of some lower-peninsula residents started to look like war paint on the night of Ash Wednesday, when a crowd of hundreds packed a boardroom to speak their minds about a proposed redevelopment of the Sergeant Jasper apartment site on Broad Street.
Many in the standing room-only crowd didn't take too kindly to being chided by Planning Commission Chairman Francis McCann, who banged his gavel and warned them not to cheer and jeer, proclaiming, "This is not a high school gym."
The Beach Company, owner of the now-vacant Sergeant Jasper apartment building and the property it sits on, is looking to build a cluster of three buildings with a concealed parking garage and up to 35,000 square feet of commercial space, including a 24-hour grocery. If the company gets its way, the number of residential rental units on the property will double from 221 to 454, a possibility that's causing many residents of the surrounding historic district to worry about increased traffic.
The Planning Commission was slated to hear the developer's case Wednesday night, but when the evening came, the fire marshal determined that the school board room at 75 Calhoun St. was filled beyond a safe capacity of 200. The commission voted to defer a hearing on the Sergeant Jasper project until a later date when they could arrange for a larger venue — possibly a high school gymnasium.
City planner Tim Keane says the issue will likely be taken up at the next scheduled Planning Commission meeting on March 18, although the agenda has not yet been confirmed.
Whenever the day comes, the conflict has all the makings of a battle royale in Charleston politics: Historic properties, angry homeowners, and a whole lot of money.
On one side of the battlefield, you have the property owner, the Beach Company, one of the oldest and most influential real estate developers in Charleston. The company is behind many of the area's latest multi-family residential projects, including Mt. Pleasant's The Boulevard, Park Circle's upcoming Factory at Garco Park, and Summerville's upcoming Parks at Nexton. It's unclear who will align themselves with the Beach Company just yet, but company leaders are pitching the redevelopment as a boon for walkable, bikeable downtown living and an option for a young workforce.
"The big-picture vision is what a huge opportunity it is to create a place for people who work on the peninsula to actually live on the peninsula," says Beach Company Vice President Kent Johnson. "There's very few places that remain where you can do that."
On the other side, you have the neighborhood associations of Charlestowne (better known as South of Broad) and Harleston Village, which represent some of the city's wealthiest and most influential residents. They rallied homeowners to pack the meeting, many of them sporting pins that read "Say No to the PUD," a reference to the Planned Unit Development zoning that the Beach Company is seeking (click here to read the submitted PUD master plan).
Beach Company officials say they've held more than a dozen community meetings about the development plan since 2006. They also say they've already made concessions to the neighborhoods by increasing on-site parking, adding 2.2 acres of public open space, and eliminating a 60,000-square-foot office building that was originally planned for the site. Scott Parker, an urban planner working for the Beach Company on the project, says he understands the concerns of Harleston Village and South of Broad residents.
"I get it," Parker says. "I mean, those folks own houses that are historic houses. They've spent a whole lot of money fixing them up, they've spent a whole lot of money maintaining them, and they provide a great setting for our city. And they want to make sure that anything that's added to our city is compatible."
Somewhere along the line, the discussions soured. The neighborhood associations are joined in their fight by the Preservation Society of Charleston, and Executive Director Kristopher King says the residents have not been satisfied by the previous meetings. He says the Beach Company even changed its proposed number of housing units at the last minute, angering some residents.
"We've met with [the Beach Company] three or four times, but at no point were the concerns of the community and our concerns spoken to or addressed," King says. "Quite honestly, the number of units was 225 until basically the application was sought."
The Preservation Society released a sort of broadside against the redevelopment on its website before the Wednesday Planning Commission meeting, calling the proposal "the largest, most dense, most impactful project ever conceived south of Calhoun Street." Among the naysayers' complaints: Height.
One of the proposed apartment buildings for the Sergeant Jasper site would be four stories tall along the street, but in the middle of the building, four stories of parking would be topped off by an additional three stories of apartments. It's an architectural trick meant to preserve the relatively low-lying look of the neighborhood while allowing the developer to build extra floors that can't be seen from the street.
Of course, even a seven-story building would be shorter than the current Sergeant Jasper tower, which sticks out like an architectural sore thumb at a whopping 16 stories tall.
Jay Williams, chairman of the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, has previously picked fights with the cruise ship industry over the height of its ships in the Charleston harbor, but he says he'd personally rather have the Sergeant Jasper tower than the lower-profile buildings that the Beach Company has proposed. His neighborhood association voted unanimously against the proposal.
"They could build another tower there. Of course it's out of place, but so is a massive development in a residential neighborhood. But I would prefer a tower because it's structurally sound, and it'd have to be more aesthetically pleasing than this sprawling thing — and it probably wouldn't have a supermarket in it, so it probably would be better."
For people who live outside of the lower peninsula, it can be hard to understand why a 24-hour upscale supermarket within walking distance from home is a bad thing. But on the narrow, parking-scarce streets surrounding Broad Street, one of the most common concerns raised by residents is traffic congestion.
"35,000 square feet is a major, major grocery store," says Kristopher King of the Preservation Society. "So the problem you've got is you're taking something that's entirely residential right now — [the Sergeant Jasper] has about 17,000 square feet of office — but again, it has a very minimal impact on the neighborhood. If you create a destination in the middle of these two neighborhoods, this is just not the part of the peninsula for that intensity or that type of use."
The proposed development would include three parking spaces per 1,000 square feet of shopping area in the grocery store and one parking space per bedroom in the residential units, an amount that some neighbors fear will not be enough. Scott Parker, the urban planner working for the Beach Company, says that in the broader picture of the peninsula, increasing the housing stock within walking or bicycling distance of major workplaces — including the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina — means fewer cars coming and going from the suburbs every day at rush hour.
"Any time you're talking about new development, most people are concerned about congestion," Parker says. "When you say some new development is coming, it means more cars, which means it's more difficult to move around. And the reality with the Jasper is it's actually the opposite. New development means less cars, because when you have folks that are living here that are working in these locations, they don't get in their car to go to work. So literally you're taking cars out of the system."
The original Sergeant Jasper tower, built with a Federal Housing Administration loan in 1949, has long been the home of college students, tourism and restaurant workers, and hospital employees, representing a middle-class island in the midst of a decidedly upscale neighborhood. The extensive bike racks on the ground-floor patio were often overflowing with bicycles.
Today, the 6.6-acre Sergeant Jasper tract represents the largest redevelopment opportunity in Charleston's lucrative but highly regulated historic district. As part of the Beach Company's proposal, 9 percent of the apartments (about 41 units) would be set aside for three different price tiers of workforce housing, deemed affordable for households making anywhere from 80 to 125 percent of city's median family income, which was recently estimated to be just north of $49,000.
As for the remaining 413 units, the rent price is up in the air.
As part of its published advocacy alert, the Preservation Society of Charleston warned homeowners that the Planned Unit Development is a rush job, writing, "The PUD creates a vehicle where everything mentioned above may be approved in one meeting." This is false.
The Beach Company's request actually has three components: 1) Rezoning the property from Limited Business (LB) to PUD, partly to allow a supermarket to operate after 11 p.m., 2) Removing the property from the restrictive Old City Height District (the original tower was grandfathered in), and 3) Amending the city's comprehensive Century V master development plan to classify its property as Urban Core, allowing for a dense level of residential development. It's safe to say there will be plenty of debate on all three counts.
The Planning Commission is an advisory board and does not make binding policy decisions. Even if the commission votes to recommend approval of the Beach Company's proposal at its next meeting, the proposal will still have to run the gauntlets of the Technical Review Committee and Board of Architectural Review. And any rezoning would ultimately have to be approved by City Council, which would give public readings during at least two of its meetings.
The debate over the Sergeant Jasper site's future puts City Councilman Mike Seekings in an unenviable position. As the District 8 councilman, nearly all of his constituents live in Harleston Village and South of Broad. Seekings helped organize a public input meeting at the Charleston Museum on Feb. 12, and a whopping 97 percent of the 299 attendees who filled out a questionnaire at the meeting said they opposed the Beach Company's proposal. Twenty-six of the attendees wrote in the comments section that they were concerned about an increase in the number of rental properties, with one writing, "Renters have no vested interest in city." (Click here to see the full results of the questionnaire.)
On the other hand, one of the Beach Company's stated goals for the project dovetails nicely with Seekings' pet projects on council: making the peninsula a more bikeable place. And while the city's Century V plan — which Seekings helped revise in 2010 — does allot other areas for Urban Core development on the peninsula, they are largely along the Meeting-King Street corridor, which has very little undeveloped space now. (One other area marked Urban Core is the site of the future Horizon District on the west side of the peninsula.)
Seekings, who says he is considering a run for mayor in November, is keeping his opinions to himself for now.
"I don't know what it's going to look like, and I really don't want to project a vote on something that I don't know what it's going to look like," Seekings says. "I'm going to listen very closely, I'm going to listen to my constituents obviously, and we'll see how it goes. I suspect by the time it gets to council — although I don't know — it may look different."