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Developer Bennett-Hofford Enters Fifth Year of Odyssey to
 Get Luxury Hotel Permitted in Charleston, South Carolina

By Robert Behre, The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Feb. 21, 2008 - While some have likened the new Midtown hotel project on upper King Street to Charleston Place, a more fitting example may be the large and controversial hotel planned at 404 King St., on the northwest corner of Marion Square.

Both split Charleston's architecture and preservation community. Both had to weather civil litigation designed to stop the building.

And both withstood years of evolving designs and public debate.

The planned hotel at 404 King went before the city's Board of Architectural Review again Wednesday and ultimately won preliminary approval by a 4-1 vote.

The vote marked another successful milestone in the developer's five-year odyssey to get it permitted, but two historic preservation groups are suing the city over its decisions to allow its 10-story height and to allow a hotel there in the first place.

Developer Michael Bennett of Bennett Hofford said he hoped those lawsuits would be resolved so construction could begin before the end of the year -- or within a year.

"This is going to be Charleston's version of the Waldorf... These will be the highest priced hotel rooms in the city," he said. "This thing is so expensive. It doesn't make economic sense. This is Bennett Hofford's legacy."

A separate Midtown project, about eight blocks north on King Street, was unveiled earlier this week. That will have 235
luxury hotel rooms and about 170 condos, plus retail. Asked if the market could absorb so many hotel rooms, Bennett said, "I ain't worried about anybody."

The issue Wednesday was the architectural design, and architect Julie Nelson of Goff-D'Antonio Associates Ltd. outlined several changes, such as the addition of quoins, canvas awnings and higher entrances, made since the board last reviewed the design last May.

But the changes didn't satisfy everyone. Winslow Hastie with the Historic Charleston Foundation particularly questioned a series of obelisks that would perch on a second floor terrace overlooking the square. "It's sort of a mortuary architectural motif," he said.

Robert Gurley of the Preservation Society said, "This is still a huge building that really doesn't accommodate itself to its site... It still has this south Florida look to it."

Mazyck Wraggborough neighborhood president Vangie Rainsford disagreed. "I've been to Palm Beach, and I don't get that kind of feeling with this building."

Farley Clark of the Committee to Save the City also praised its classical, timeless design and asked, "Why would we let the Old Citadel building dictate what we try to do here?"

BAR member Robert Stockton later answered that question, saying, "The city's motto is 'She guards her buildings," and I think we should continue to do that. The Old Citadel should continue to be the dominant building on the square." Stockton consistently voted against the proposed hotel saying its design "has nothing whatsoever to do with the Old Citadel." The Old Citadel served as The Citadel's campus until the early 20th century, and it's now an Embassy Suites hotel.

BAR member and architect Chris Schmitt urged the architects to consider doing more with color, removing shutters and other detailing to create more differences among the building's four sides.

"I see on this building an extreme amount of sameness as you go around it," he said. "I don't know if I've ever seen a building with this many stories with shutters on it."

Clark praised Charleston Place for what it has done for the city and what this new hotel could do, but Schmitt agreed only to an extent. "While Charleston Place has done a lot for the city, it's probably one of the worst architectural designs the city has ever seen."

Preservation Society Executive Director Cynthia Jenkins also didn't like the comparison. "Go up there (to upper King). It's revitalized. It's been revitalized for five years. Clearly, we don't have to have this hotel to revitalize it."

Jenkins said he was horrified and disappointed with the board's vote, adding, "You could plop that building down in any city in America. It would be great in Memphis. Certainly in Charlotte. Maybe in Jacksonville. There's nothing that orients you to Charleston in that building."

Schmitt and BAR members Eddie Fava, Erika Harrison and Chairman Craig Bennett ultimately voted to give it preliminary approval subject to restudying the Hutson Street facade, the use of shutters around the whole building, changing the roof to copper, using more stone and less stucco and eliminating all faux windows.

Bennett voiced concern that the hotel's five-story section jutted out further into Marion Square than the Old Citadel and was three feet taller, but the board already had approved its height, scale and mass.

When the board began discussing the height and mass again, Bennett Hofford attorney Frances Cantwell broke in and tried to ask a question. Craig Bennett ruled her out of order, but Yvonne Fortenberry, head of the city's Department of Design, Development and Preservation, raised a similar flag. "We have to be careful we don't go back to the issue of height, scale and mass," Fortenberry said.

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To see more of The Post and Courier, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.charleston.net.

Copyright (c) 2008, The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C.

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