|By David Slade, The Post and Courier,
Charleston, S.C.McClatchy-Tribune Business News
Jan. 3, 2006 - In what was described as one of the most important zoning decisions Charleston has faced since the late 1970s, the Board of Zoning Appeals has relaxed the height limit on a hotel planned for Marion Square.
Both supporters and opponents of the request to change the height limit described the King Street site as one of the most important properties in historic Charleston. The eight-story hotel would replace the former Charleston County Library.
"This monumental (hotel) building will be a cornerstone in our city," said Vangie Rainsford of the Mazyck-Wraggborough Garden District Neighborhood Association.
The planned Hilton Hotel would rise at the northwest corner of Marion Square, at King and Hutson streets. The property sits across King Street from St. Matthew's Lutheran Church and along Hutson Street it abuts the historic Old Citadel, now an Embassy Suites Hotel.
City zoning and a prior decision by the zoning board had already cleared the way for a 185-room hotel up to 105 feet tall along King Street. However, the back half of the property where the Hilton is planned, where it abuts the Old Citadel, is in a different city height district and was zoned for a maximum of 55 feet.
Attorney Frances Cantwell, representing developers Mike Bennett and Hank Hofford, said the zoning would result in an odd, L-shaped building that would loom over King Street. The developers sought a zoning variance to allow a building that would be 63 feet tall around the edges and 105 feet tall around the middle, extending the 105-foot height limit across the entire property.
Preservation groups said granting a height variance for the Hilton project could set a bad precedent for other properties in the Historic District and around Marion Square, where several large developments are expected.
"This is one of the most important zoning variances I can recall coming before this board," said Leonard Krawcheck, who has chaired the Board of Zoning Appeals since 1978.
The zoning board approved the variance 6-1, with Margaret Smith opposed.
The hotel plan divided groups that are often allied on planning and zoning issues.
Supporters of the hotel plan include the Committee to Save the City, the Mazyck-Wragg- borough Garden District neighborhood, the city's planning staff and several City Council members, and a number of nearby residents and business owners who were among the crowd of about 50 people at Tuesday's zoning meeting.
"We see this as the first piece of a coherent architectural puzzle that will restore the square to the grandeur it deserves," said Jack Simmons, chairman of the Committee to Save the City.
Opposing the height of the hotel are the Preservation Society of Charleston and the Historic Charleston Foundation. Both groups said a hotel would be fine, but not a hotel eight stories tall. They could challenge the project when it comes before the city's Board of Architectural Review.
"Our objection is that they are simply overdeveloping the site," said Robert Gurley of the Preservation Society.
The hotel would feature ground floor retail shops, a restaurant, and meeting space. Proponents said it will help revitalize upper King Street and improve Marion Square, while the preservation groups said the height would be a detriment to the area.
Smith said she thought the planned hotel was beautiful, but did not agree that the property met the criteria for a zoning variance.
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