A big part of why tourists come to Charleston – to walk the streets South of Broad, wander through churches and graveyards and eat and drink with the locals – is because they want to live like Charlestonians live.
Thankfully, the folks at City Hall recognize this and have finally put the brakes on the proliferation of hotels in an effort to keep tourism and livability in a healthy balance.
With some 5,000 hotel rooms already on the peninsula and another 2,500 in the pipeline, it was time to slow things down after reining in short-term rentals last year.
Under the long-debated ordinance given final approval last week, new full-service hotels cannot be bigger than 250 rooms; won’t be permitted to displace homes or businesses; and developers will have to chip in to help fund affordable housing. Also, the Board of Zoning Appeals will have greater control over hotel designs to make sure they fit the character of existing neighborhoods. City Council will take up rooftop bars separately.
These are all reasonable rules, all aimed at keeping downtown a living, breathing city – one that tourists want to visit because of its authentic charm. Greater scrutiny was needed in part to prevent want many saw as the “hotelification” of Charleston, which was endangering that charm.
Tourism remains eminently healthy and should continue to be so. But it is rightly the duty of elected officials to ensure the city remains livable. It’s a thorny problem because the more popular a place becomes, the pricier it gets, and the people who seeded that success are eventually priced out. So finding a way to create more affordable housing in and around downtown will be a daunting task, but one that must be addressed to keep the heart of the city livable for those who live and work here.
The hotel ordinance may not be perfect, but at least we’ve got something on the books that can be fine-tuned later. Mayor John Tecklenburg, City Council members, the city’s planning staff, and preservation groups and other members of the task force assembled to tackle the issue all deserve credit for bringing it to fruition.
Yes, the ordinance could have and should have been passed sooner. But it’s not too late. At roughly 14 hotel rooms per every 100 residents, downtown Charleston still has fewer than Savannah (20) or Virginia Beach (18). And the new ordinance is already having an effect. As reported by The Post and Courier’s Emily Williams, the developer of a hybrid apartment-hotel complex on Meeting Street is reassessing a request to use about half of the 264 units as hotel rooms.
Growth and change are inevitable, but it is important to guide it in ways that don’t overwhelm the city’s historical sites and charm. Next up should be an archaeology ordinance that requires at least an exploratory survey of downtown sites before construction begins.
Charleston has done an unparalleled job of preserving its character. That is largely thanks to the people who live here and care deeply about preserving the past with an eye to the future.