Match Gaillard plan to community- Evan Thompson’s commentary in P&C: “…please consider a few alternatives…”

Match Gaillard plans to community, P&C, April 8, 2012. 

Charleston needs a new performing arts center, and private charitable contributions to renovate the Gaillard Auditorium are a wonderful gift to our community. This gift also presents the opportunity to rethink how this ever-expanding project can be reorganized to improve neighborhoods as well.

Recently unveiled plans to create space for outdoor catered events and performances for up to 1,500 people on the auditorium’s Calhoun Street lawn give us pause. With the energy and financial resources behind this project, it is not too much to consider how we can take it to the next level without suffocating adjacent neighborhoods.

Preservation progress in Charleston is about protecting and improving neighborhoods. But the intensification of uses at a renovated and expanded Gaillard Auditorium, including a new 80,000-square-foot city office building attached to the rear of the building, undermines the residential character of adjacent neighborhoods.

Traffic and congestion already overwhelm the area around the Gaillard, and adding more is not progress. Pile driving will threaten masonry buildings and the scale of what is proposed trivializes historic houses and churches.

Before we collectively invest nearly $150 million in this project, please consider a few alternatives that might better position this public investment for a more widely dispersed benefit.

1) Invest in the Cigar Factory for city offices as part of an award-winning public-private preservation project. It makes sense that our historic city should have offices and meeting space in an historic landmark. It does not make sense to put city offices in historic Ansonborough. Upper East Bay Street is readily accessible to all city residents, and restoring the Cigar Factory would anchor the East Side neighborhood. The upper stories could become residential lofts and ground floor commercial space would add conveniences for city employees and nearby residents. A neighborhood would be given new life and it could stimulate the construction of a parking facility nearby that could be shared with Trident Technical College to ensure that it, too, can grow with Charleston.

2) Build a new, world-class performance and exhibition hall at Union Pier. A facility that costs over $100 million can and should be a highly visible and proud architectural achievement. A waterfront location would be spectacular. Rather than gut an outdated 1960s building lurking behind an Alexander Street parking garage, a new, four-sided structure can set the tone for the future of Union Pier and cement Charleston’s status as a 21st century cultural leader. It would improve the quality of a derelict Union Pier.

3) Create a waterfront plaza for outdoor performances adjacent to the new performance hall. Current plans call for the construction of an outdoor stage next to 75 Calhoun St. as part of a redesigned park that can accommodate 1,500 people for performances. A waterfront plaza is far more appropriate for this sort of use and would crown Mayor Joe Riley’s fine legacy of developing popular public parks on the Cooper River. The logistics of dueling outdoor events at Marion Square and next door to 75 Calhoun St. would otherwise gridlock downtown on a busy weekend in the near future.

4) Build a shared parking facility for the new cruise ship terminal and a new performance hall. A nine-acre surface parking lot is not the highest and best use of our waterfront. A parking garage at Concord and Laurens streets could be justified and would free up planned waterfront surface parking areas for the construction of a new performance and exhibition hall.

5) Incorporate the Bennett Rice Mill façade into the exterior of the new building. Whether attached to the new structure or stabilized as part of an entrance courtyard, this magnificent piece of antebellum industrial architecture can be creatively saved and enhance the redevelopment of the site.

6) Re-establish the neighborhood fabric of Ansonborough. There are modern buildings worth saving, but the Gaillard is not one of them. The site of the present auditorium and adjacent surface parking lots on Alexander and George streets could be subdivided once again into the single family residential lots that they had been for 200 years. The 40-year-old tree canopy along George Street would shade future piazzas rather than turn to mulch. New city blocks carved out by extending Menotti Street east to Alexander, reconnecting Alexander between George and Laurens, and extending Wall Street north to Menotti would ensure a pedestrian scale and reassert the street grid. The sale of the lots would generate city revenue and the property would go back on the tax rolls.

7) Dedicate “Gaillard Park.” The current green space at Calhoun and Anson streets could be improved as a passive park and garden for the enjoyment of all Charlestonians, particularly as an amenity for neighborhoods on both sides of Calhoun Street while continuing to serve as recreation space for Buist Academy students.

It is not too late to reconsider how a nearly $150 million investment in an auditorium, exhibit hall and city office building can be redirected to save Ansonborough, the Cigar Factory, the Bennett Rice Mill façade and Union Pier.

Let’s refocus our energy into making a new waterfront Gaillard possible while improving the quality of our downtown neighborhoods. It would be an investment worth celebrating.

Evan R. Thompson is executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston.