As it stands today, the big, brown Sergeant Jasper apartment building on Lockwood Boulevard (or Broad Street, if you'd like) shoots up 150 feet into the Lowcountry air. It has 14 occupied floors, plus two additional floors for mechanical equipment. There is also 17,000-square-feet of commercial space leased by doctor's offices, insurance and financial planning companies, and a minimart, while a mix of college students, MUSC nurses and interns, young urban professionals, and retirees live in the 221 one- and two-bedroom units. And these are very, very small apartments.
"If you want to have a refrigerator, you have to put it in your closet because there's not room to put one in your kitchen," explains Kent Johnson, vice president of the Beach Co., which owns the Sergeant Jasper. The pipes for the plumbing systems are so small that the units can't have garbage disposals or dishwashers. And the whole place smells a little funny.
Still, the building stays full year after year, mostly because of its prime location in downtown Charleston. But it's getting up there in age, and the Beach Co. is ready to retire the Sergeant Jasper — and to build new rentals in its place.
"In general, it's at the end of its life," Johnson says. The building's HVAC system is obsolete, its electrical system is undersized and non-code compliant by today's standards, and the number and scope of repairs is rapidly increasing. That's why the Beach Co. is hoping to rezone the two lots that make up the Sergeant Jasper, as well as a third vacant parcel closer to the marsh known as St. Mary's Field, and start fresh.
However, the company voluntarily removed its rezoning request from the city's May planning commission meeting. "We're trying to have this dialogue with the community, so when it has to be evacuated and taken down, we have had this community discussion about what should go back," Johnson explains.
And in fact, a consensus among many of the community organizations isn't so much the rezoning itself; it's the fact that the Beach Co. hasn't provided definite plans for what will go up on the sites. "Without that information, you're sort of operating in a vacuum," says Winslow Hastie, the Historic Charleston Foundation's chief preservation officer. "We hope that what their plan entails would be of a much more appropriately scaled development. That's all in the eye of the beholder. What may be appropriately scaled in their mind might be very different from what we think of as appropriately scaled. That's why it's much easier to talk about these things around an actual plan."
The Jasper Stands Alone
In total, the three parcels that the Beach Co. hopes to rezone take up about six acres in an area considered a gateway to downtown Charleston. Right now, the Sergeant Jasper and St. Mary's properties are zoned as Limited Business, the only mixed-use designation available when the building was constructed in 1950. The City's zoning ordinance says that, "The LB district is intended to provide for a limited variety of commercial uses and services associated with neighborhood retail, financial, and office activities which are compatible with residential areas."
Nowadays, Limited Business zoning favors commercial and retail, as well as a limited number of residential use, kind of like what you would see in a suburban strip mall. "That's fine when you're talking about a shopping center that might want to have some live-work units or something like that around it, but it's really not appropriate for a downtown urban mixed-use project," Johnson says.
When the city adjusted its zoning categories in 2007, it came up with a new mixed-use category called Mixed Use 1 Workforce Housing, which the Beach Co. is hoping to secure for the Sergeant Jasper. It's defined by the city ordinance as "intended to permit high density residential uses along with a limited variety of neighborhood commercial uses and services in urban areas of the city."
"It doesn't let us do anything we couldn't do before, but it lets us change the mix of what we can do to be more residential and less retail, so to speak," Johnson says. Additionally, in order to qualify as workforce housing, 15 percent of the new rentals must be "made available to households having a Household Income of no more than eighty (80) percent of the area median family income," according to the City of Charleston's zoning ordinance, making the apartments as affordable as possible. In that area, $50,548 is the median income, as stated by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, so qualified households could make no more than $40,438.
Meanwhile, the density of the Sergeant Jasper, and of what may come next, is controlled by the area's antiquated height district. The apartment building is one of the only pieces of property left in Charleston with a 3X height district designation. "What that means is for every foot that the face of the building is away from the center line of the closest public street — in our case it's Lockwood — from every foot we go away from that center line, we get to go up three feet in height," Johnson says. That's why the Sergeant Jasper is so tall and so set back from the street. But the Beach Co. would rather replace its one tall building with several shorter structures, and the City of Charleston agrees.
"We are walking away from the only high-rise site on the peninsula," Johnson says. "But we agree that these four- and six-story buildings are going to be more in context within that neighborhood and better for Charleston."
If the changes that the Beach Co. wants are made, the St. Mary's property would have a 50/25 height district for a four-story building, which means the structure has to be at least 25 feet tall but no less than 50 feet tall. The Sergeant Jasper lots would be in height district 80/30 for six-story buildings.
"From our perspective, it really doesn't kill us if we don't get the rezoning," Johnson adds. "We know we could put an office building on this site that has residential uses on top and it would be a home run. We just don't think that's the right thing to do there."
In the presentation Johnson has given to community groups about the rezoning request, he's offered views of the Sergeant Jasper from the vantage point of the James Island Connector. The Jasper stands alone, far from the other high-rises of the MUSC complex. But if it's replaced by four- and six-story buildings, you hardly notice it.
Gateway to the City
The Beach Co.'s rezoning request was initially scheduled for April's city planning commission meeting, but there was no quorum from city council members that month, so the meeting was postponed. The company voluntarily withdrew the request from May's meeting at the urging of Tim Keane, the city's director of planning, preservation and sustainability, and City Councilman Mike Seekings, who represents the Sergeant Jasper's district. They suggested that the Beach Co. spend more time discussing the plans with the community.
"This is one of the most important pieces of undeveloped and soon-to-be redeveloped land in the city," he says, which is why he's been involved with the rezoning process since the beginning, working with the Beach Co. and the community. Seekings thinks the reason the request hasn't gone forward is because there hasn't been enough information available to allow for informed participation.
"I wouldn't say they're angry about it, but they certainly want to have some participation and say, look, if we're going to support this, we want to know what's going to go on it, and I agree with that," Seekings says.
Already, various neighborhood associations and preservation groups have expressed concern over the rezoning. Because there still aren't any detailed plans for what may replace the Sergeant Jasper, the Charlestowne Housing Association doesn't know how its South of Broad neighborhood will be affected.
"If they're trying to build a building that will cover the whole block with no setbacks and little parking, then that could have a dramatic effect on traffic congestion," says J. Randolph Pelzer, the association's president. "It could have an impact on the density of the development. It could lead to commercialization into what is an important artery into the city and it's incompatible with existing neighborhoods, which are residential neighborhoods."
The Historic Charleston Foundation and the Preservation Society of Charleston have also been included in the Beach Co.'s presentations. Charleston Chief Preservation Officer Winslow Hastie says his group was caught off guard by the rezoning request. "We're asked to accept a rezoning that is actually fairly permissive," he says. "But then we don't really have any sense of what the proposed plans are for the site. That was our concern is we can't really have a productive discussion about this until we really understand what the developer has in mind."
Johnson says the Beach Co. recognizes these frustrations — and points out that this vacuum is just as frustrating for the Beach Co. It's like the chicken-or-the-egg debate. "We have to understand the underlying zoning. Do they want us to go up or do they want us to go out?" Johnson says. "Once we know that and we know if it can be primarily residential or primarily commercial. What an office building with limited residential uses on the top floor would look like will be completely different than a multi-family project with retail. So it's kind of a catch-22, and we're not really avoiding any part of the process. What we're really doing is agreeing to build a project that is low and horizontal instead of tall."
Still, while the Historic Foundation would be happy to see the 3X zoning go away, they're against the 50/25 zoning request on the St. Mary's site specifically. "We were vehemently opposed to that, because that western edge of the peninsula is very low scale," he says. "That whole west edge of the peninsula is zoned at 35 feet, and that's kind of the scale of that part of the city."
Currently, the Historic Foundation is hoping to form a unified front with the other concerned groups, so that they can all engage with the Beach Co. in a more meaningful way. The Historic Foundation has thrown out the idea of approaching the site as a planned unit development, or PUD. "The PUD approach would allow us to talk about this in a very comprehensive, holistic way, which we think would be much more constructive," Hastie says. "That would allow the community to provide input, and then the developer could develop a plan that we then could look at and hopefully shape with them in a more comprehensive way, rather than just rezoning it, hoping for the best, and then they come back with something later."
Sergeant Jasper residents have also been invited to the meetings with the Beach Co. One tenant, Julie (she declined to give her last name), read about the deferral in the Post and Courier. She hasn't been to any of the public meetings, but she says "Personally, I think they should tear it down."
Her neighbor, Ellen Walker, isn't so enthusiastic. She's lived in the Sergeant Jasper for about a year now. "It's an old building, but I do like it," she says. "It's convenient. As far as I'm concerned, relative to what else is in Charleston, it's cheap."
Walker worries that the new housing will be unaffordable, luxury apartments in a town already full of them. She's written about her concerns to various community leaders. "Granted this is not the best-looking building," she says. "But the mess it will make to tear this down and to rebuild will take a long time, and this is a major road here. I think they're overbuilding, especially for here."
At a recent meeting, Pelzer's Charlestowne board unanimously approved a resolution to oppose the Beach Co.'s rezoning request.
"We haven't had these plans before us very long," he says. "They've had a lot of time to think about what they want to do, but we have not had these plans. We know that the changes that they're seeking could be very, very adverse to our neighborhood, so we're opposed to those changes."
Seekings agrees. He thinks a lot of work needs to be done before the request can go before a deliberative body, but he's hopeful that the rezoning will go ahead eventually. "If it goes forward properly and with the right input, it's going to all be positive," Seekings says. "It's just a great piece of property that is truly a gateway to the city, and if developed properly — and I have no question that it ultimately will be — it's going to be fabulous. I think if you rush to do it and you don't go through a process of deliberation ... then you probably would make a mistake, and no one wants that."
No matter what happens, this is going to be a long process. Johnson estimates that the Beach Co. is at least two years away from a completed replacement, and he adds that getting Board of Architectural Review approval will probably take a year by itself. The rezoning request is currently on the schedule for next month's planning commission meeting, but Johnson says his company won't move forward until it has another meeting with the community.
In the meantime, there will be plenty of notice given to residents about what's happening, and Johnson promises there won't be any last-minute eviction notices. "Our greatest fear is the building could fail at any time, and we haven't initiated this conversation with the community and we haven't started the process of all these things we've been talking about," Johnson says. "We're trying to proactively do this while we have time to do it right."