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Waterfront Redevelopment Plan for More Hotels
in Charleston, South Carolina Facing Criticism

By David Slade, The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Aug. 31, 2009--A plan to redevelop parts of Charleston's Cooper River waterfront and the east end of Calhoun Street calls for more hotels and multi-story buildings, and proposes turning one lane of East Bay Street into parking spaces.

A goal of the city's plan is to make the east end of Calhoun Street more like King and Broad streets, some day lined with a mix of shops, offices, homes and hotels from Marion Square to the South Carolina Aquarium.

Mayor Joe Riley and the city's top planning officials say it's an important and necessary effort to breath more life into eastern Calhoun Street and draw more visitors to the waterfront.

"A city, especially our city, should have a vision for what we want the city to look like," said Yvonne Fortenberry, director of Charleston's division of Design, Development and Preservation.

Neighborhood and preservation groups, and the city's own Planning Commission have reacted to the $300,000 study with caution, however. The commission declined to endorse the plan at a meeting two weeks ago, and decided instead to give city staff two months to address some of the criticism.

The Mazyck-Wraggborough Garden District Neighborhood Association, representing the residential area immediately north of Calhoun Street, is particularly concerned by a proposal to allow a multi-story hotel at Calhoun and East Bay streets.

Most of the site is now a surface parking lot and small commercial building, home to a Starbucks and the city's new business development center. The site also abuts residential Alexander Street.

"We know the waterfront area is going to be developed at some point, and we encourage that," said neighborhood association president Vangie Rainsford.

"What we don't need is the accommodation zone coming into our neighborhood," she said. "I don't know anyone who wants to live across the street from a hotel."

Developer John Rivers, who owns the property and built many of the better-known buildings in the studied area -- Carolina First Center, Fountain Walk and the former Imax Theatre and the Laurens Place condos -- supports the hotel idea.

"I think it's important that we, as a community, think about more than what happens in our back yards and think more about the whole community," Rivers said Friday. "My family's been here since 1670, and we intend to stay here, so I'd like to think I'm not only thinking of me ... but what's important to the overall good of the city."

He said a new hotel at Calhoun and East Bay streets would create amenities that people in the adjacent neighborhood could walk or bike to, like a restaurant and fitness center.

Rivers recently won a zoning change that would allow him to develop a hotel at the Fountain Walk complex by the aquarium.

"To me, we don't need any more hotels," said Councilman Robert Mitchell, who represents that part of the city. "How are those people (who live on Alexander Street) going to rest with a hotel there and all that?"

The plan deals with much more than the potential for a hotel on Rivers' property, but that item has become a point of contention.

Another proposal that has concerned some neighborhood groups is the idea of allowing commercial developments with fewer on-site parking spaces. The idea is that people could park in garages nearby, and development could focus more on the needs of pedestrians.

Neighborhood groups, which battled a similar proposal in Charleston and pressured the zoning staff to drop the idea, believe that people will park in residential areas rather than walk from parking garages.

"Who is going to walk far on a hot day, or a rainy day?" Rainsford said. "And we get a lot of those in Charleston."

Urban planners tend to despise surface parking lots, like the one on Rivers' property at Calhoun and East Bay streets, regarding them as an unattractive waste of space.

What today's urban planners tend to support, and this plan is no exception, is on-street parking. Parking spaces on the street reduce the need for parking lots, and tend to slow traffic down and create a buffer between the road and the sidewalk.

The Calhoun Street-East/Cooper River Waterfront plan calls for adding more parking spaces along Calhoun Street, and more provocatively, proposes converting one of the two northbound lanes of East Bay Street to parallel parking spots.

The plan calls for reconnecting East Bay and Washington streets, just south of Hasell Street, and encouraging northbound drivers to use Washington instead of East Bay.

Neighborhood organizations and city officials like the idea of slowing traffic on East Bay, the only street on the lower peninsula, other than the Crosstown expressway, with a speed limit over 25 mph.

"I think it is critical to create a more livable neighborhood and a more livable Calhoun Street," Fortenberry said. "I think having a full-time parking lane would be ideal."

The plan comes at a time when many large developments are already planned for the area under study and are awaiting funding or an economic recovery.

One plan that's already been approved will put 100 hotel rooms, hundreds of condos and apartments, and many businesses along Calhoun Street between Concord and Washington streets, on the former Ansonborough Field.

Another plan calls for building the proposed International African American Museum at Calhoun and Concord streets, across from the aquarium area.

The potential development considered by the city's plan for the area would largely occur on Calhoun Street between King and East Bay streets, and between East Bay and Washington streets.

Picture drive-through banks, gas stations and one-story shopping centers being some day replaced by multi-story buildings with retail shopping on the first floor and homes or offices above.

Rivers said he hopes that people will consider the plan as a whole.

"If you try to pick the plan apart, I think you lose the comprehensiveness of the plan," he said. "There isn't a single person, in my opinion, who is going to be hurt by this comprehensive plan."

Most of proposed changes would come many years in the future, if they come at all, because the land is mostly in private hands and development would be the owners' choice. Also, City Council would have to adopt the plan, and zoning code changes would be required.

"The key is that this is a blueprint, and everything would have to be worked out with further details," 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) 2009, The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C.

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