Report offers solutions to fix the city’s broken BAR

Consultants find overwhelmed review board and busted zoning code the source of problems

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SAM SPENCE
  • Sam Spence
Charleston’s Board of Architectural Review may undergo some big changes following the release of a new study Friday.

Created by architectural consultant Andres Duany and his firm, DPZ, one of the most significant changes proposed in the report (embedded below, PDF here) is the creation of two separate building review boards, one for large-scale projects and the other for smaller projects and renovations. Comments from city staff listed in the report mention that there is very little precedent for the larger developments that the city is beginning to see. Architects, developers, and other professionals who met with the consultant team also said the BAR does not understand the economics or design requirements of a large-scale development. Without context, board members are left with a "blank sheet" approach to design and assessment. On top of that, the BAR in its current form is overwhelmed with the approximately 2,000 projects submitted every year, city staff told consultants.

According to the report, "The BAR is not doing as good a job as it might because of sheer exhaustion. Too many project are submitted for an area that has become much too large for the BAR members to provide a local, knowledgeable response." Utilizing a divide-and-conquer strategy would likely result in fewer agenda items, allowing more time to be spent on individual projects.

The report is the product of a week-long investigation by the consultant team contracted by the City of Charleston and the Historic Charleston Foundation to figure out ways to improve the city’s building review process, as well as policies, guidelines, and ordinances related to architecture in the historic districts. Consultants interviewed residents, architects, developers, and other stakeholders to outline the shortcomings of the current BAR – chief among those being problems of style and process.

According to the report, dissatisfaction with issues of architectural style was common among both professionals and citizens. Complaints from city staff and professionals mentioned in the study include the lack of inspiring buildings and weakening of good design with the blending of conflicting architectural styles.

"The BAR should not have a bias. The BAR has manifested a pronounced sympathy that the architecture of Charleston should be ‘of its time’ while being aware that the citizens they represent often prefer an architecture of its place," the consultants wrote. "Inevitably there is a compromise: traditional buildings are modernized and modernist buildings are traditionalized. This is the source of the mediocrity of much of the recent architecture in Charleston."

DPZ says that the way around this "mediocrity" is to have two architects on each review board, one specializing in modernist architecture and the other and expert in the traditional style. Either of these architects would be available to provide design advice for applicants. The hope of this recommendation is to create new buildings with a single, unified style, rather than allowing designs to be "diluted or hybridized" by mixing the traditional with the modern.

The report also recommends that the current administration undertake a "complete re-assessment of the city’s zoning code and standards administered by the fire marshal, engineering department, and building inspector, which do not support the character of Charleston." The consultants found that the current zoning code is dysfunctional and needs to be rewritten to reduce suburban sprawl, which was its original intention.

The report’s final suggestion is that Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. initiate the establishment a design school dedicated to the study of Charleston immediately upon his retirement.

Many of the report’s recommendations are aimed at alleviating headaches for those going through the BAR process. While cutting down on the members’ workload with the creation of two review boards, the report also sets out a list of clear guidelines intended to reduce the amount of guessing on the part of the applicant. Guidelines include breaking up larger projects into a series of smaller buildings and measuring proposed building height by number of stories rather than feet – with the ground floor being the highest, a minimum of 14 feet for commercial buildings and 10 feet for residential homes.

The report also provides a simple list of architectural and urban characteristics that are considered "easier to approve," thus giving the applicant a good idea of what the BAR has in mind for new developments. These preferred traits sit on the left of the list, opposite their discouraged counterparts on the right. For instance, a proposal to develop a group of small building would be much more likely to receive BAR approval than a request to create one, single monolith at the center of the city. If your project proposal for BAR shares more in common with the characteristics on the right than the left, then you’ll know better than to waste your time applying.

Duany will present the full report at a public meeting of the city’s Planning Commission on Sept. 24 at 5 p.m. at Sottile Theatre, 44 George St., Charleston.

Revised BAR Process report - City of Charleston/DPZ


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