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Charleston City Council votes to create panel to study hotel growth on peninsula

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By Liz Segrist
lsegrist@scbiznews.com
Published Feb. 24, 2016

Charleston City Council decided Tuesday night to forgo a proposed moratorium on new hotels and instead study the influx of hotel developments on the peninsula for the next three months.

At the recommendation of Mayor John Tecklenburg, City Council unanimously voted to create a steering committee made up of city staff; College of Charleston data and tourism specialists; employees of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau; hoteliers; and preservation and neighborhood group representatives.

The new hotel advisory committee will study the rate of hotel construction on the peninsula, how many hotels the area can support and potential impacts on quality-of-life factors and traffic congestion.

Committee members will then make recommendations to the council on possible ordinance changes, such as disallowing hotels in certain areas or limiting the number of rooms in each hotel. During the study, Tecklenburg said hotel applications will be heavily scrutinized.

Tecklenburg said he wanted to address hotel development concerns after four hotels, totaling more than 200 rooms, were approved in one night during a recent Zoning and Appeals Board meeting.

Those approvals — combined with the volume of hotels that have come online in recent years and the additional 730 hotel rooms slated to open on the peninsula by the end of 2017 — created a sense of urgency, Tecklenburg said.

“What we’ve seen since Charleston has become so successful as a center of tourism — and I’m very proud of that business — but we’ve seen hotel rooms increase at a significant rate,” Tecklenburg said. “You have to really question whether that’s sustainable and whether it leads to good quality of life for citizens, particularly on the peninsula where a lot of this growth has occurred.”

Tecklenburg said he understands that council members have “moratorium fatigue” after voting in the past year to halt gathering place zonings and new bars and restaurants on Upper King Street.

“I respect your feelings about not wanting to have a moratorium and I’m respectful of the message that we send to the business community as well. ... but I do think it’s important to bring [hotels] back to council and put it back on the table, because hotel rooms have been growing — I wouldn’t say an alarming rate, but close to that, and at an unsustainable rate,” Tecklenburg said.

Jacob Lindsey, the city’s planning director, said the study is needed if the city hopes to maintain a mixed-use downtown that provides offices, residences and parking for residents, in addition to hotels.

“We want to make that sure we’re doing everything we can to maintain a real, living, vibrant city. ... So when tourists come here, they see real folks walking around who live here and work. Not some place that’s really little more than a tourist destination,” Lindsey said.

Council members’ concerns, ideas

City Council enacted ordinances a few years ago, such as a 50-room limit in certain areas and stricter approval requirements, in an effort to curb hotel developments on the peninsula.

Councilman Mike Seekings said the city needs to ensure its existing hotel regulations are being enforced as part of the approval process before making any major changes.

Councilman William Moody Jr. pointed out numerous figures to showcase that hotels typically have fewer units — and therefore house fewer people — than offices or apartments. He said hotels also bring in more money to the city through tourism spending dollars and accommodations taxes.

Moody said he is worried the hotel study will simply push hotel development outside of the peninsula to West Ashley, North Charleston or Mount Pleasant, which could increase traffic as tourists drive onto the peninsula and fight for parking spaces.

“The hotels are going to go somewhere and people are still going to come here. What are those unintended consequences of whatever we do? We need to study all of them,” Moody said.

Councilman Perry Waring said short-term rental sites, like Airbnb, are impacting accommodations taxes, residents’ quality of life and hotels’ competitive advantage more than new hotels. He said he wanted Airbnb to be a part of the study.

Per council discussions last month, Tecklenburg said that short-term rentals are being studied in a community development committee, meaning that the hotel and Airbnb studies will run in parallel, but separately.

Councilman William Dudley Gregorie said that for every one hotel room, about 1.4 jobs are created. He said the committee should consider that when studying growth issues.

Councilman Peter Shahid Jr. said, “People come to Charleston because it’s Charleston. People come to Charleston because it’s a living city. If we continue down this path of unchecked and unfettered hotel building ... we’re going to affect the affordable housing and transportation here (for residents).”

Reach staff writer Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119 or @lizsegrist on Twitter.

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