The long-running debate in the Charleston area about striking a balance between historic preservation and new development is healthy, according to Jon Hildreth, a Charleston-based senior adviser with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
"People care about the city, and debate is healthy," Hildreth told Palmetto Business Daily. "If nobody as debating, this means they don't care. It is a special place."
Healthy or not, that debate is likely to grow, as developers work to meet the demand brought by a rapidly increasing population. U.S. Census numbers recently found that Charleston is now the largest city in the Palmetto State.
According to Hildreth, Charleston is a national leader in historic preservation, including adaptive re-use of historic properties to create "new" developments.
"Historic preservation is an accepted part of doing business in this city," he said.
He was, however, reluctant to provide a panacea for the divisiveness that has accompanied the tug-of-war between preservationists and developers in recent years.
The poster child for that debate was the fight over The Beach Company's plans to redevelop its Sgt. Jasper property on the Charleston Peninsula. Joe Antunovich, the architect of that redevelopment project and a nationally-recognized leader in historic preservation, has been critical of how the city's Board of Architectural Review (BAR) approached the project, which resulted in a years-long legal battle.
“Clear minds could have sat down and resolved these issues and we would not have lost two years," Antunovich told Palmetto Business Daily this past January.
In a separate interview with Palmetto Business Daily last year, Antunovich, who was recognized in 2014 as a "Legendary Landmark" in Illinois for his historic preservation work, said that the BAR process was arbitrary and unfair.
He said that the initial redevelopment concepts for a "very rich, ornate, historic architecture," was rejected by the BAR.
“We had the zoning criteria clearly spelled out," Antunovich said. "We created what we thought was a beautiful design with an architecture that we thought was impeccable all the way around and yet it was picked apart with what we thought were totally arbitrary means. It was very confusing.”
Charleston City Councilman Bill Moody, Jr. agreed with Antunovich.
“They (the BAR) overstepped their bounds,” Moody told Palmetto Business Daily last year. “They are supposed to look at the architecture, and whether a proposed building is consistent with our architectural history. But the BAR got into the zoning."
Last year, the city and The Beach Company reached a settlement on the project, which is now moving forward. Now, the city is considering changes to the way the BAR operates. This includes the BAR's ability to rule on building heights — an issue that was at the heart of the Sgt. Jasper fight.
Several years ago, an outside consultancy, Duany Plater-Zyber, was hired by the City of Charleston to issue a variety of recommendations and revisions to the BAR. Among those were for the city to measure building heights by a structure's number of stories, rather than feet.
Since that time, only one of the key recommendations — splitting the BAR review process between large and small projects — has been adopted.
"I am pretty pleased with the way BAR is working, but I'm always looking at them to see if can do better," Moody told Palmetto Business Daily.
He said the BAR should not insert itself in zoning issues, and was unable to specifically state why the rest of the Duany Plater-Zyber recommendations had not yet been adopted.
Despite the Sgt. Jasper fight, Hildreth contends that Charleston has "a good record and good history" when it comes to the relationships among policymakers, developers and preservationists.
John Darby, CEO of The Beach Company and former chair of the Trident CEO Council, agrees with Hildreth that balancing conservation and development is key in a city such as Charleston.
“Here in Charleston, we have historic architecture from multiple periods -- from the 1700s to the 1950s,” Darby told Palmetto Business Daily in January. “The preservation of our city has maintained its cultural, social and architectural significance.”
But, he added: “It is, however, a city. Not a museum. Not a movie set.”
While Darby said his company is usually able to work successfully with architectural review boards, sometimes "some members try to exceed their authority."
As the city considers changes to the BAR, the local population continues to grow, and policymakers in Charleston and surrounding communities consider various moratoriums on new development, the preservation-development debate is likely to grow.
In the meantime, Hildreth said it's ironic that the historic nature of Charleston's architecture is one of the very things fueling the debate.
"Architecture is an important aspect for visitors, and why people want to live here," he said, adding that the local real estate "market is too strong" for developers to be scared away from tough building restrictions.
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