Don’t bypass Design Board

Don’t bypass Design Board

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

When other cities were tearing down aging inner-city buildings and erecting towering new ones, Charleston resisted. It often was more difficult to adapt old buildings for new uses, but Charleston continues to prosper because of those extra efforts.

Similarly, since 1999, Charleston has benefited from the work of the city’s Commercial Corridor Design Review Board, which has reviewed the architecture of 850 new projects and five times that many small changes like new signs or landscaping.

Just as the historic district needs good design, so do major corridors throughout the rest of the city. So it is unfortunate that city staff wants to gut that board of many of its responsibilities.

The city’s Planning Commission will consider the staff’s suggestion at its 5 p.m. meeting Wednesday. Members should reject the proposition.

It is laudable to look for ways to make doing business in Charleston more inviting. People have long complained that red tape makes it difficult. But it would be a mistake to sacrifice careful planning and public input as a way of making that happen. If the design review process takes too long, perhaps the board’s schedule should be amended.

The board has earned its stripes by refusing to approve early designs of a proposed housing development adjacent to the Angel Oak on Johns Island. (See Samantha Siegel’s column on today’s Commentary Page.)

There was more to dislike than the buildings’ appearance (the project’s density, environmental impact and proximity to the tree), but the Commercial Corridor Design Review Board was able to prevent a boxy, pedestrian development from going up in a prominent and sensitive spot.

The reshaping of the board is being promoted by Tim Keane, director of Charleston’s Department of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability. He says his staff could review most of the projects, leaving the board (renamed the Design Review Board) to consider only large projects. The city would decide which are which.

But that in itself presents a dilemma. Mr. Keane, before he took his current post, worked on behalf of the Angel Oak project, which he praised and the board found unacceptable. Clearly, the process benefits from broader input.

One compromise has been suggested whereby the city would advertise proposed projects. If no one expresses interest in their design, they could be approved without board review.

But even that is a step in the wrong direction in that public notices can be overlooked easily, and poor design could appear before neighbors and other interested citizens know to protest.

The present Commercial Corridor Design Review Board might cost a good project a month’s delay, but it could also save the city’s important corridors from inappropriate, uninteresting designs.

Post & Courier article [here]

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