July 11, 2017 – As we looked out from our new meeting location, Joe Riley Park or “The Joe,” at the nearby construction how appropriate it was to receive this week’s message from Jacob Lindsey, Director of the City of Charleston Department of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability. Lindsey received his degree in Urban Planning from the University of Georgia and was appointed by then Mayor Joe Riley to head the City’s planning department in 2015. He came to our club this week to inform us of the efforts his department is taking to improve the function of the Board of Architectural Review or BAR.
Lindsey’s department oversees long-range planning in the City, zoning and design review and two and a half years ago set out to improve BAR functions. In the past much of the urban landscape in Charleston was one- two- or three-story buildings, but with growth the need for larger structures, such as the ones Lindsey noted outside the windows of The Joe has increased. Changes to the BAR are intended to improve building quality and make the building approval process more predictable.
Created in 1931, the BAR is the model of most architectural review bodies across the country. Without the BAR it is likely, Lindsey said, that much of downtown would be filled with large buildings of lower quality much like parts of other cities in our region such as Charlotte or Atlanta. Nonetheless, the litigation which ensued from the BAR involvement in the Sergeant Jasper redevelopment, did point out weaknesses in the BAR structure at the time – the actions of the BAR had the appearance of arbitrariness which the courts recognized. Thus for the first time in the existence of the BAR, the City has embarked on a process to enhance BAR decisions by creating a set of principles to guide the BAR through the design review process. By setting up these principals, Lindsey explained, those appearing before the BAR know better how to address design elements, the BAR can make its decisions in a more uniform manner assuring no arbitrariness in the decision.
One of the first modifications the City has enacted to enhance downtown design is a change in the height management provisions of the City’s code. As Lindsey pointed out, in urban design density equals affordability. In practice this means that a given building must maximize its vertical space for the entirety of its footprint to maximize the cubic footage available for occupancy and thus reduce the cost of such space as much as possible. When building height is limited by feet, the typical result is block upon block of boxy buildings all built to the same roof height as if cropped by a massive aerial lawn mower.
To combat this tendency, the City has changed the way it measures height to the number of floors with the roof not counting as a floor. There is thus no reason for a designer to feel compelled to limit a roof line to a straight line or to avoid architectural elements such as slopes or even turrets or spires in the roof lines. This one changes Lindsey believes will ensure that much of the city-scape which has made Charleston famous, the varied heights of structures along Broad Street as an example, can be assured to expand as growth dictates new and larger construction.
Lindsey also gave as an example of construction to be curtailed by the new height rules what he called “rocket houses.” These are structures which meet existing height limitations but, again to maximize height in the entire footprint of the building, rise to heights not consistent with neighboring structures. The new height rules limit the number of floors so that neighborhoods have a more cohesive street appearance.
One of the primary concerns of Lindsey’s department is affordable housing – an issue also addressed by his department’s modification of City rules. There are basically three ways the City enhances the availability of affordable housing. First, the city will assist buyers or builders of housing and require deed restrictions which ensure affordability of the units to future occupants. Second, when developers seek approval of a project of a certain density, the City requires a certain number of units be made available for affordable housing. Third, if the developer wishes to it may opt out of providing such affordable units in its project in return for paying a fee to the City, which the City then uses to acquire affordable housing elsewhere in the City.
When asked about BAR jurisdiction, Lindsey pointed out that there certainly are limits. The BAR has no jurisdiction over landscaping of property, only hard structures. The BAR also has no jurisdiction over parts of a structure which cannot be seen from a public way. Thus as an example, Lindsey said you can have a Mickey-Mouse shaped window, as long as the public cannot see it.
Asked about parking, Lindsey said that the City is for the first time trying to audit usage of available parking. By researching the amount of parking burden borne by on-street parking versus parking decks, Lindsey’s department hopes to be able to balance the price for such parking to ensure that usage is appropriately driven (pardon the pun) to one type or another ensuring efficient usage of all parking sources.
The final topic addressed by Lindsey was the West Ashley Master Plan. According to Lindsey this is a matter of great concern to our fellow Rotarian, Mayor John Tecklenburg and each Friday his team has a standing meeting with the Mayor regarding master plan development. The process is modeled after the downtown revitalization plans implemented by former Mayor Joe Riley in the 1970s and 1980s. Through the public hearings which have occurred to date, the primary concerns expressed have been traffic, drainage the need for better retail and dining options in the area. Residents also expressed a desire to improve the streetscape to make it more practical for residents and their children to walk or bike to local shops, restaurants and schools and to make use of transit to and from work more practical. The City’s consultant should deliver recommendations to Lindsey’s department in the next few months and Lindsey’s goal is to have a plan completed by the end of the year.
— Alex Dallis, Keyway Committee