Issue: Should 3x zoning be eliminated downtown?
We all face the tempting simplicity of “digging in our heels” on local issues that are important to us. And, as with all things, there is a time and a place for that.
But usually, inclusive policy means avoiding that temptation, and instead wading into the murky waters of competing values in order to develop sophisticated, fair, and balanced solutions.
Case-in-point: On Wed. Oct. 28th, the Planning Commission is holding a special public hearing to discuss the recommendation that all 3x zoning be removed downtown. There is disagreement regarding this recommendation among both local residents, as well as city officials.
What This Means.
"3x zoning" means that the maximum allowable height for a building is determined by multiplying by three the distance of the building from the street. This has to do with the density of the use of a given piece of property – meaning in this case, basically, how many people use a given piece of property. Currently, properties zoned 3x include the Francis Marion Hotel, the much-discussed Sgt. Jasper building, and the St. Matthews Lutheran Church.
Eliminating 3x zoning downtown would transform these buildings into “non-conforming uses.” While it would limit high density property development, it would also mean that if there was ever a disruption in the use of one of these properties, they would likely be unable to rebuild (for example, if a building is damaged by fire or flood).
Why Is This Important?
Short answer: Because this will be an important policy decision regarding two important – and competing – values downtown: (A) historic neighborhood preservation, and (B) inclusive housing options for lower income residents.
Historic Neighborhood Preservation. Preserving local historic charm is of course an important issue to many Charlestonians. The Historic Charleston Foundation’s position is that 3x zoning should be removed, because it is incompatible with two standards: (1) the character of surrounding neighborhoods, and (2) adopted Comprehensive Plans (a city’s Comprehensive Plan essentially paints the “big picture” vision for a city’s growth in areas such as public space, diversity of use, and affordability. It articulates goals, methods, and priorities for that growth. See for example Charleston's 2011 Plan).
Rent Prices. On the other hand, providing downtown housing options for lower income residents generally requires more density of land use than, say, an expensive family home South of Broad.
Additionally, residential rent is skyrocketing downtown. What landlords can successfully charge for rent is dictated by the market. In turn, the market is dictated by competition. High density allows lower rent, which competes with higher rent options elsewhere in the market. So that means that high density affects rent rates not only in the high density buildings themselves, but also anything else on the market (homes, carriage houses, low density apartment buildings, etc.).
This Is Where You (and All of Us) Come In.
As you can see, at this stage of the policy discussion, a lot has to do with "appropriateness." As stated by HCF’s chief preservation officer Winslow Hastie, “appropriateness” is “in the eye of the beholder.”
Similarly, Comprehensive Plans are by nature somewhat broad, so can be notoriously vague. That means that there is room for reasonable people to interpret Charleston’s Comprehensive Plan differently. (For example, the Plan makes clear that inclusive access to housing opportunities is a priority (see the 2011 Plan, p. 25, “Population & Housing Goals”)).
So who decides the answer to these tricky judgment calls? We all do. Our city official’s choices are supposed to reflect a cross section of what “appropriateness” means to everyone who wants to live, work, and thrive downtown. That means assessing and addressing the needs of South of Broad homeowners, preservationists, the working class, young professionals, students, etc. For some, high density developments may be inappropriate for the neighborhood. For others, the lack of high density, low rent residential development may be equally inappropriate.
The good news is, there is a relatively painless way for your voice to be heard – and all it takes is that you get informed and show up. Invest in the future of your city and your quality of life by making sure that important decisions include your voice, and by holding city officials accountable to representing that voice.
If you have any questions, please contact us at BACE@BACEchs.org.