Nationally renowned architect Joe Antunovich is no stranger to large projects in major historic districts.
Recognized in 2014 as a "Legendary Landmark" in Illinois for his work on historic preservation projects, Antunovich is now the architect for what has become the controversial Sergeant Jasper property redevelopment on the Charleston peninsula.
Antunovich's company, Antunovich Associates, came to work on the Jasper project by way of real estate entrepreneur Dan McCaffrey, while the two architects were collaborating on the historic Hotel Burnham at the Reliance Building in Chicago.
“We brought this beautiful building back (Reliance Building in Chicago), which was probably within a couple of years of falling apart,” Antunovich recently told Palmetto Business Daily. “Now people can come from all over the world and stay at the hotel and enjoy one of Chicago’s architectural icons. McCaffery has a relationship with The Beach Company, and he recommended to them that I get involved down there on the Sergeant Jasper project."
The Beach Company, headquartered in Charleston, is the owner of the Sergeant Jasper property.
Antunovich is proud of the initial concept his firm developed for the property.
“The building had a very rich, ornate, historic architecture, a building that was set back on all sides in the landscape,” he said. “We wanted to build a beautiful building in the park with wonderful architecture with substantial setbacks, and we molded it here to the zoning that was on the site.”
That concept, however, was rejected by Charleston's Board of Architectural Review (BAR). That fact frustrates Antunovich, who said his firm fully adhered to the zoning criteria on the site, only to be stymied by the "arbitrary" process of 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.”
Last year, The Beach Company filed suit against the BAR over what the company says is the BAR's "arbitrary and capricious" review process.
Having worked in historic preservation districts around the country, Antunovich agrees.
“The architectural review bodies in most cities we've dealt with usually confirm the existing zoning laws. These boards simply confirm the compatibility on the appropriateness of the architecture,” Antunovich said. “But in Charleston, everything is up for grabs. I don’t see how an architect or a developer could develop under those scenarios because so much of it is arbitrary.”
Despite meeting all zoning rules, Antunovich explained that some local Charleston activists claimed the building was adjacent to the historic district and, as such, should only be 55 feet tall. Others, he said, claimed the building was "totally incompatible."
“People seemed to forget about the fact that downtown Charleston has a number of buildings, which aren't too far away from the Sergeant Jasper, that are over 100 feet high,” he said. “But on this site, the zoning allows for a building of 330 feet high. Our plans weren’t even close to 330 feet.”
Antunovich said the BAR wrongly started to get into the "appropriateness" of the zoning. This is much different than what he has seen in other historic communities.
"We've worked in Madison, Wisconsin and in Chicago, where the architectural review boards were fair (and) represented their communities very well,” Antunovich said.
Antunovich explained that, in his experience, cities work best when striking a good balance between planning commissions, city councils and historic preservation boards. The issue of zoning, he said, should be separate from that of historic preservation.
“Zoning should be completely separate from historic preservation," he said.
In other cities, such as Chicago, Antunovich said that there is a clear separation of the duties of the reviewing boards. In Charleston, he explains, that separations is not so clearly defined.
“In Charleston, you have a BAR that seems to comment on everything,” he said. “In Chicago, it is more defined. The historic preservation aspects of the projects are handled by the historic preservation commission, and the architectural and the adherence to zoning is handled by a different group. In Charleston, they are all debated by the one group.
"It just makes it totally overbearing and forces the BAR into a situation where they are making somewhat arbitrary decisions in areas where they shouldn’t even be passing judgment, mostly on zoning," he explained. “In Charleston, basically the whole zoning and the entire historic neighborhood question came to bear, and it was totally unfair to the developer.”
Court-ordered mediation began last week for stakeholders in the ongoing feud over the property. The Beach Company's president and CEO, John Darby, said his company will "make every effort to achieve a design that is both good for the city and economically feasible."