It’s Raining in Charleston

So Brian Hicks, a Post and Courier columnist, took this opportunity to rain down on the Board of Zoning Appeals’ decision to deny a condo conversion for 1 Meeting Street.  We didn’t see him at the ZBA-Z meeting to have heard the hour-long discussion about this iconic home; was he there?  And he didn’t mention that the Preservation Society, the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association as well as Historic Charleston Foundation all opposed converting 1 Meeting Street into three condominiums, or that all the neighbors save one, a real estate agent, were also against chopping 1 Meeting into condos.  He’s still entitled to his own opinion, though.(1)

But to paraphrase the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, he’s not entitled to his own facts.  The fact is that 1 Meeting Street, in need of $2-3 million in structural repairs and remodeling to make it livable, was rolled out for sale three years ago at an unbelievable $8 million price; that initial price, in a bad economy, tainted any appetite for buyers.  A $4.4 million price, even now, is more realistic.  Yet the Hawks want $5.4 for it.

Let’s take two other Brian Hick’s “facts.”  The house, when you delete the piazzas (that the applicant’s architect actually included in his calculation of the total square feet of the property during the BAR meeting), the “unuseable” attic, and the “dungeon-like” basement section with the boiler and mechanical equipment–could any of the basement actually be used for “condo” living space given the current flood zone restrictions?–1 Meeting Street is closer to 8,000 not 12,000 sq. feet.  A new single-family home was just built a block away that’s larger than that.  And if columnist Hicks thinks “29401 is going to have to be the richest zip code in the country,” he needs to get out more…to say, Sullivan’s Island.  Or Kiawah.  Or many other far more prosperous cities with far more expensive houses.(2)

More troubling is Hick’s characterization of these downtown neighbors: “All that talk of historical integrity went out the window when these folks said they were fine with two condos.  But make it three and, well, there goes ye olde neighborhood.”  Because, you see, 1 Meeting Street’s owners have held a city permit for a basement apartment since 1990, so they already have permission for two units, and “these folks” knew that.  But “these folks” also knew that turning this stately home into three condos was a different issue entirely, a point that Mr. Hicks missed.

Brian Hicks added, “….you just can’t trust those shifty bottom-feeders who buy $2 million condos.”  So does he want to see historic Charleston chopped into a maze of $2 million condos?

Mr. Hicks writes, “Charleston isn’t Colonial Williamsburg, it’s a working, living city,” yet he seems clueless about what makes Charleston a “working, living city.”  A living, working city is about diversity, and diversity isn’t just about hard-working middle class families, singles, students, people of color, retirees, subsidized housing, bartenders and waiters, a “working, living city” also must include the wealthy people who can afford, and afford to maintain, these expensive single-family homes, who are committed to the city’s preserved history, and who generously support the charities, museums, arts, and events that propel downtown life.  These are the people who put their homes on tour that fund the historic and preservation societies that attract the most valuable tourists who drive our city’s economy and provide jobs for thousands.  And these are the people that increasingly sacrifice their quality of life to accommodate the expanding hordes of these tourists who endlessly and noisily parade down their streets and, and all too often, uninvited, wade into their gardens and private spaces.

Yet, contrary to his rhetoric, Mr. Hicks’ advances ideas that are likely to choke the life out of our “working, living city,” and turn it into a Colonial Williamsburg theme park.  The large historic single-family homes he’d chop into “$2 million condos” would more than limit the upper tier of Charleston’s economic and social diversity, a key cohort that has sustained this city since before the Revolution; it would poison the life of the neighborhood.  At that meeting, one neighbor said, “Condominiums are anonymous. It loses its personality in the neighborhood.”(3)  She might have added that many who live in condos have a home or homes in other cities and use their condos as glorified hotel rooms. And there’s evidence that most condo owners don’t engage with either the neighbors or the neighborhood, and they don’t contribute to Charleston socially or civically–because their real lives are elsewhere.

So what does Mr. Hicks think will happen to “these folks” who turned out in mass at that Zoning Board meeting to defend their “working, living” neighborhood and their neighbors?  Does he think “these folks” will stay in their old neighborhood if it’s overrun by cut up mansions used only by occasionally-in-residence, anonymous condo owners?

It takes more than tourists and $2 million condos to make a city.  And there are certainly easier, less congested, and less expensive places for real residents to live other than downtown Charleston if that’s all that remains there.

The city is interesting and vital because of the interesting and vital Charlestonians who live in these great homes.  But given the geometrically expanding tourism and traffic, hotels, tour busses, carriages and pedicabs, bars, noise, cruise ships, and taxes, the “living” part and the “Charleston” part of our historic city may be coming to an end.  That point Mr. Hicks misses entirely.

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–Jay Williams, Jr.
26 November 14

Footnotes and links

1)  A City or a Museum, 1 Meeting Street controversy…   Brian Hicks – Post and Courier

2)  New York Dominates the 2014 List of Most Expensive Zip Codes – Forbes

3)  Condos at 1 Meeting Street Defeated by Preservationists – Robert Behre – Post and Courier