Protecting the special character of the nation’s oldest historic district takes enlightened government, strong allies, intelligent zoning and city policy, involved citizens, a vigilant city staff—and a supportive daily newspaper.
Protecting the nation’s oldest historic district has turned Charleston into a world class tourist destination, but it takes enlightened policy, a vigilant city staff and a supportive daily newspaper, says a leading preservationist
So says Robert Gurley, Director of Advocacy for the Preservation Society of Charleston, considered the more feisty of two preservation groups defending the popular South Carolina city.
Charleston’s Historic District protects about 4,000 buildings, four times as many as Portsmouth. At age 94, it’s older than Portsmouth’s—and steadily expanding. A valuable asset, the Historic District has turned Charleston into a lucrative world-class tourist destination. And Charleston, a much larger city than Portsmouth, has tools in its toolbox that Portsmouth does not have to protect that asset.
Like Portsmouth, Charleston has three basic land use boards regulating planning, appeals and historic district issues (a Board of Architectural Review instead of a Historic District Commission). But in Charleston, an active sub-board protects the city’s trees, and a Livability Court referees problems between neighbors– including demolition by neglect.
A glimpse of a courtyard in Charleston’s downtown historic district
Demolition is not an issue in the more upscale parts of Charleston, Gurley said. “But in the districts that are trying to come back, it is—and demolition by neglect is a companion issue.”
PROTECTING LIVABILITY MEANS CURBING ROWDINESS, NOISE, DEMOLITION BY NEGLECT
Robert Gurley , director of advocacy for the Preservation Society of Charleston, pushes for residents’ quality of life
Even in cases where land has become more valuable than a building that sits on it, the city does not allow demolitions, Gurley said. Enforcing the city’s ten-year-old law against demolition by neglect is the Livability Court.
“When an applicant wants to demolish a building because it’s in the way or [the owners argue that it’s] in such bad condition it can’t be restored, we usually don’t believe that,” Gurley said. “In Charleston, they usually don’t try to demolish, but they will try to make a case that it’s in too bad condition.”
Here’s how the process works. “Demolition by neglect is a livability issue,” Gurley explained. “The inspector issues a summons. You explain before the court why you’re not keeping a building to minimum standards.” The Livability Court handles other livability issues, like drunken students and noisy neighbors. Still, Gurley said he wants the ordinance more stringently enforced and penalties made more severe.
HOW ABOUT MAKING THE NUMBERS WORK?
Asked what the Preservation Society of Charleston says to a developer who argues that if he can’t build bigger or taller he can’t make his numbers work (as often heard in Portsmouth these days), Gurley replied: “We don’t care a thing about his numbers. That wouldn’t resonate with us at all. If you can t make the numbers work, another developer will come along.”
The Society wants the city to better manage the flow of cruise ship visitors so they don’t flood the streets
Infill should be a “simple discussion,” Gurley said. “One way is using the historic form, but detailing it as if it were built in our time.” New construction needs to be compatible with the Historic District, Gurley said. “If you destroy its historic integrity, you destroy the reason people want to visit the city and the tax benefits and economic advantage of it.”
An addition to a historic building should always be subordinate, Gurley said, citing a basic idea recently upheld in Portsmouth over the contested addition to 173-5 Market Street. “The historic structure should be the star. If you want to put contemporary detailing on the [new] form, we think that’s OK, but it depends on how it’s done.”
A leading Charleston preservationist says an addition to a historic building should always be surbordinate and let the old building be the “star.” The principle was recently upheld in Portsmouth to protect historic 173-5 Market St
THE DEBATE OVER DEVELOPING OPEN LAND
A bigger issue for Charleston these days is development of open land. The city has an industrial area that is now the center of “ferocious” development activity, Gurley said.
Housed in a late 19th century brick building on King Street, the Society is a strong advocate for the city’s special character and livability
A graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy and Dartmouth College, reporter Robert Behre covers preservation issues for Charleston’s Post & Courier. The city’s family-owned daily newspaper, the Post & Courier is a strong ally in efforts to protect the city’s fragile historic character.
One of the issues reporter Behre finds himself writing most about these days is the debate over how much new building can be made to fit in. Here too, preservationists are divided. “It’s a little easier to find agreement on height, scale and mass,” but even on the eight-story hotel [a battle the Preservation Society fought and lost], some preservationists thought it was appropriate, he said. “There’s a strong feeling that new construction should be compatible, but the devil is in the details—and there’s a healthy debate not just about height, scale and mass, but also about architectural style, how new buildings should be built, and how much they should fit in.”
NATIONAL RECOGNITION OFFERS PROPERTY-OWNERS TAX BREAKS
Wood removed from the federal-period house at 428 Pleasant was stacked on a truck in the Portsmouth Housing Authority lot and recently driven away. The Portsmouth Planning Department says the developer removed wood that had dry rot. Charleston’s easement program allows property-owners who want to protect the interiors of historic houses to do so in exchange for tax breaks
Charleston’s historic district is on the National Register for Historic Places. Under the city’s “façade easement program,” homeowners who choose to participate can get a tax deduction for granting an easement to a nonprofit preservation group, which then has authority over what happens to the property’s exterior. National Register status lets homeowners get tax credits for some rehabilitation work on contributing properties.
Easements in Charleston can come in many forms. If owners want to, they can protect the interiors of their houses from having historic interior woodwork removed, as allowed in Portsmouth;s historic district. Granting easements on interiors essentially requires the easement holder’s (preservation group’s) blessing about any changes, reporter Behre explained via follow-up email. Easements can also be given on land, to protect a lot from further building. Each easement is tailored to what the owner wants to give up and what the preservation group will commit to defending and overseeing in the future, Behre added. In return, the owner gets tax breaks and the peace of mind of knowing that a historic property will be protected after he or she no longer owns the property.
Charleston’s zoning ordinance has a hodgepodge of 15 to 20 height districts, according to Gurley. Its focus is on keeping new building from dominating its neighbors. The city also controls density, but most of the time, Gurley says it allows too much of it. “The city has a tendency to promote density, arguing that it increases the tax base,” said Gurley. “But without rail and mass transit, we’re getting density without the infrastructure to move the people.”
As for form-based zoning, a hot issue in Portsmouth, Gurley says he feels the idea of expressing height in stories instead of feet has merit. Although he believes form-based zoning works best on vacant land or land that is being sprawled, he readily admits he’s no expert. Nor did the name TUPDC (Town Planning & Urban Design Collaborative), the firm Portsmouth hired to create its form-based zoning code, ring a bell with Gurley.
BEYOND PARKING GARAGES TO 21ST CENTURY TRANSPORTATION POLICY ISSUES
In Charleston, regulating cruise ships and the flood of tourists has become a major quality of life issue for the city. Here, the argument over cars seems to have progressed beyond the parking garage debates preoccupying Portsmouth today to overall transportation policy issues. “Parking is a huge issue,” Gurley says. “So much development brings in too many cars.”
But even if you require developers to provide adequate parking, you don’t want a historic city center studded with parking garages, Gurley said.
“We’re building too much car-dependent construction without the mass transit to deal with the people. That’s got to change. Our historic streets are not getting any wider, and they’re not meant to handle the traffic. In the late 19th century, we had trolley lines. We disassembled them, and now we need them again.”
Overall, protecting Charleston’s character takes a combination of government foresight and alert city staffers, involved citizens and other strong allies—not to mention a supportive newspaper, Gurley said. “You need be very vigilant, have a lot of allies, and you need to be a consistent advocate for best preservation practices.”
After an earful about what’s happening in Portsmouth, he opined: “Sounds like it’s time to clean house!”