Neighborhood associations in historic Charleston stand their ground on development 

Citizens United

click to enlarge Virginia Bush, president of the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, wants to see sustainable growth in the city

Jonathan Boncek

Virginia Bush, president of the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, wants to see sustainable growth in the city

They've been called NIMBYs, the South of Broad crowd, and a vocal minority set on stalling development, but what do downtown Charleston's most high-profile neighborhoods have in mind for the area's future?

Neighborhood associations and preservation groups showed up in full force at last week's City Council meeting. While one representative from Harleston Village took a bit of his time in front of the mayor to request a new stop sign at the corner of Bennett Street and Rutledge Avenue, almost everyone was there to discuss one big issue: hotels.

In November, Mayor John Tecklenburg announced his five-point pledge for the city, with one of his biggest campaign promises being to "Institute a one-year freeze on new hotel approvals and control overdevelopment by rezoning sites like the Sgt. Jasper," according to a card distributed by his campaign. At the time, Tecklenburg argued that a moratorium would allow for a more diverse range of businesses to set up shop in the city's ever-dwindling available space.

"Knowledge-based businesses are really important to our city's future, and if you tie up every corner with a new hotel, it really restricts the other diverse businesses that we'd like to see develop in the city," he said during a press conference in November.

For Dan Beaman, the newly elected president of the Harleston Village Association, it was Tecklenburg's promise to rein in development that helped cement him as the obvious choice for mayor.

"If you'll notice in the last general election, everybody from Mt. Pleasant to Summerville, including the city of Charleston voted out people who were pushing for density," says Beaman. "Increased density brings with it increased automobiles and traffic, and there is no infrastructure to support all that. ... It's not so much the tourism. The tourists don't stay. It's the development that comes along with it."

As the voice for Harleston Village, Beaman isn't so much worried about the new hotels popping up. For him, the problem lies with Charleston realizing its true identity and making sure that city regulations remain realistic.

"I think that the city needs to understand that Charleston is not an urban core. It does not have an urban core. This is not New York or Philadelphia or Boston or even Charlotte," Beaman says. "Our neighborhood association is very interested in a new zoning plan. The current zoning really does not take into account the realities of the city as it is today, and that's not just in one area. That's in a number of areas. It's almost impossible now to want to do anything in this town that doesn't need a zoning variance. ... Parking and density are two big issues. Just because city planners want automobiles to go away is not going to make it happen."

Back to last week's City Council meeting, local leaders were set to discuss an ordinance temporarily halting the approval of new hotels on the peninsula south of Mt. Pleasant Street, while the Department of Planning, Preservation, and Sustainability assesses their impact on the area. According to the city, there are now 4,826 hotel rooms on the peninsula, either open for business or under construction, with more on the way. As of Feb. 2, 11 more hotels have received a special exception from the Board of Zoning Appeals, which will add an additional 763 rooms to the peninsula, the city stated in the original ordinance. These new approvals did not go unnoticed by Kristopher King, executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston. "Earlier this month at a meeting with the BZA, we saw four hotels approved. Three of the four hotels were in a block of each other. Two of the hotels were contiguous with each other — all in a delicate area of the city," he said to council.

King's sentiments regarding the new hotels ready for construction were echoed by Angela Drake Black, president of the Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood, who added, "Two out of four of the last approved hotels are in Ansonborough. We feel the squeeze. We feel the need for your study to be recommended. We feel that the latest statistics regarding new hotels have not been evaluated. We feel the need for the ordinances to be re-evaluated."

While many others in attendance at that night's meeting were prepared to speak out in favor of the mayor's moratorium, everyone soon became aware that it was dead in the water. Before Tecklenburg would have the chance to plead his case to City Council, the ordinance was pulled from the agenda at the last minute and replaced with a resolution to conduct a 90-day study on hotel development. While it may seem like a way to prolong the inevitable regarding the future of Charleston's hospitality industry, many feel the study will give the city a chance to take a pause before making a decision that could affect us all.

"We need to take a deep breath and make sure our policies and ordinances are sustainable and will lead to sustainable growth and health and the diversity that we need in terms of uses of properties here. So we do salute the mayor's proposal for the study," says Virginia Bush, president of the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association.

From the ongoing debate over Sgt. Jasper to the threat of unchecked development, Bush has been front and center for all matters affecting those south of Broad. And while the Charlestowne representative is aware of the negative ways her community has been branded as of late, she remains firm in her belief that she and her fellow neighbors are doing what's right for the city's future.

"I don't think it's accurate to paint us as standing for the status quo and trying to halt any further evolution in the town. I don't think that's what anyone believes or is seeking," Bush says. "We all recognize that the Sgt. Jasper site will be and should be redeveloped, but we hope it can be redeveloped in a way that is appropriate for the city and its unique location as the western gateway to the city and in a way that takes into account the ambiance and the infrastructure issues of traffic and flooding."

She adds, "We think there is room for a wise, prudent compromise that will redevelop that property. We're not just saying, 'No.' We're not naysayers. I think the number of hours we've spent in discussion in a 25-person stakeholder group shows we're working for an acceptable development, not against one."

Now let's see if we can get that stop sign at the corner of Bennett and Rutledge.

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