Shelby Del Vecchio
The Grand Bohemian Hotel at the corner of Meeting and Wentworth streets
A new ordinance to restrict more than 80 properties from becoming hotels gained initial approval from Charleston City Council, but changes to the plan can likely be expected before city leaders meet again.
In an effort to preserve a balance of uses among properties downtown, city planner Jacob Lindsey presented a plan to City Council Tuesday that would prevent areas currently set aside as public spaces, public buildings, parking garages, housing, and offices from being converted into hotels in the future. This isn’t the first time Lindsey has discussed plans to curb hotel development on the peninsula.
Early last year, the city’s Planning Department was tasked with conducting a 90-day hotel study
and developing efforts to preserve the city’s urban core. At that time, there were 4,930 hotel room existing or under construction on the peninsula, with an additional 731 rooms recently approved. More than 1,300 new rooms were expected to come online over the next four years.
Although the suggested changes presented by the Planning Department failed to pass City Council, Mayor John Tecklenburg is optimistic that some portions of that plan, along with this most recent ordinance, will be fully implemented in the near future.
“I do want to let you know that we do have some good ideas in that ordinance from last year, including things like making sure that new hotels have a place for guests to be dropped off and to require parking for employees and a few other things like that. Don’t despair. We’re going to come back to you in April with a few of those simple good ideas that we all agreed on,” said Mayor Tecklenburg. “What we have before you tonight is in essence a very simple way to ensure that our city continues to have a diversity of uses ... With the prospect of a very strong hotel market, we don’t want to see a hotel on every corner.”
City Council’s initial approval for the new ordinance, which will require two more rounds of voting before implemented, came after a lengthy discussion among council members. Concerns mainly centered on the amount of advanced notice that property owners were given regarding the proposed plan and the level of input given to those who would be directly affected by the change.
Notifications of the ordinance were mailed out on the Wednesday prior to Tuesday’s City Council meeting. According to Lindsey, the Planning Department received responses from seven of 86 property owners who wanted to discuss the changes further, three of which who absolutely opposed the idea.
“I think we need to be a little more prudent and make sure property owners have had time to digest this. Receiving a letter in the mail and then council passing first reading, let’s be careful to not abuse the privilege or motion of first reading,” said Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson, who was part of an unsuccessful effort to defer the ordinance for two weeks, along with councilmen Gary White, Marvin Wagner, William Dudley Gregorie, Keith Waring, and Bill Moody.
While these council members maintained the belief that more time was needed to guarantee that city leaders had heard from property owners, the remaining members of council stated that changes to the ordinance could still be made before the proposed changes return for a second vote.
“We have to go in some direction. The citizens of this city are asking questions. What is all this growth about? How are you going to protect the workforce,” said Councilman Rodney Williams. “People are asking critical questions about this peninsula and about the growth of hotels ... What if all those buildings that could turn into hotels turn into hotels? That would be very irresponsible of this council and the Planning Commission not to look at this.”
After more than an hour of debate, the ordinance passed first vote from City Council, but several city leaders indicated that the door was still open for owners to request that their ability to develop a hotel on their property be preserved. How many owners come forward remains to be seen, as is the case with the other hotel regulations the mayor mentioned. What is clear is that the debate over how best to manage hotels on the peninsula is far from over.
“We’ve talked about this. This whole business of more hotels has got us on edge and concerned because of the incredible ripple effect that if we do this wrong, how this is going to impact the peninsula,” said Councilman Peter Shahid, who supported first vote for the ordinance. “We all represent this whole city concerning what happens with these hotels and the build-up. If we allow boutique hotels or big hotels, it’s all on our radar screen. We are all genuinely concerned about it because it has such a tremendous effect on the rest of the city.”