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Foundation Matters

“Missing Middle” Housing, Charleston’s Much-Needed Zoning Overhaul and a New Downtown Plan

Posted: December 13, 2021

Like many of you, we have become exhausted by the never-ending stream of larger and larger development projects occurring not just on the peninsula, but all around the Charleston region. Every two weeks a cloud of dread shadows our review of the newest Board of Architectural Review agenda. Usually there is at least one large new hotel or multi-family housing development to pore over. To make matters worse, the architecture seems to get more generic with each subsequent application.

These hotel and apartment blocks occupy massive lots of the city. Some recent proposals cover almost 2 acres of ground within a single foundation and are up to 8 and 9 stories tall. The goal of developments like this is simple, low construction cost to maximize square footage, density, and provide easy access to personal automobiles. Many of these developments are funded through out-of-state equity funds or REITs (Real Estate Investment Trusts) which seek a fast 1-3 year turnaround on these speculative ventures. They invest heavily in hot real estate markets with existing housing deficits (i.e., Charleston), and use proforma-driven building designs to minimize construction costs, while maximizing occupant density and profit. They do this under the guise of concern over housing deficits and affordability, but in reality the city is left with upscale, expensive rental apartments that are sometimes riddled with construction defects.

Almost every one of these new buildings is branded as “luxury” apartments, with rent as high as $1,700 a month for a 600 square foot unit. Developers are selling a repackaged version of the American Dream: a luxury, one-bedroom apartment with rent higher than the mortgage of an average West Ashley home. This all comes at a time where Charleston faces a deficit of affordable real estate. According to the City Plan, Charleston needs to create 16,351 affordable units by 2030 just to meet current demand.

Image From Charleston City Plan, Pg. 93

So, how do all these residential developments impact the affordability of housing in our city? To put it frankly, they don’t. The recently approved Charleston City Plan rightly targets the need for what’s referred to as the “missing middle” of urban housing. Charleston has ample stock of traditional single-family houses—whether downtown or in the suburbs—and now we’re plagued by these new mid-rise luxury apartments clogging the skyline. We have leap-frogged from lower density neighborhoods to these dense, uninspired apartment complexes without considering functional housing types in the middle of the density scale that could address our need for more housing while also better fitting into our existing urban fabric. “Missing middle” housing is represented by townhouses, multiplexes, duplexes, and cottage courts. These are all development typologies that can reach higher density and affordability goals, while also creating walkable, human-scaled neighborhoods.

Single-family houses make great neighborhood communities, but they don’t meet the density and affordability requirements of a growing, contemporary city. The addition of missing middle housing could help to solve the exploding need for housing in Charleston, and not just on the peninsula. The smaller scale of these developments also lends itself to architectural design that is more familiar in Charleston’s historic landscape and helps to retain our strong sense of place. Local architects Bevan & Liberatos have done extensive analysis on meeting urban density goals while utilizing this Charleston style urban plan. More can be found on their website.

B&L Architects. Comparison of occupant density between a “Texas Donut” style apartment building and a “Charleston Block” of missing middle type housing.

Now that the Charleston City Plan has been approved, our City Council members, community leaders, and advocacy groups need to work together to overhaul our zoning ordinance to better reflect the goals of the City Plan. The overdue zoning overhaul should seek to dissuade or even outright ban massive “Texas donut”-scale developments in our city. We need to push for more appropriately scaled and affordable urban housing alternatives, and to create a zoning ordinance that incentivizes these types of developments and home ownership. They will help to create more vibrant, affordable, and sustainable communities.

9 responses to ““Missing Middle” Housing, Charleston’s Much-Needed Zoning Overhaul and a New Downtown Plan”

  1. Debbie McCarter says:

    So glad this is on your radar!

  2. Ellen Lipschitz says:

    excellent ideas

  3. Ellen Lipschitz says:

    excellent idea

  4. Carol Jackson says:

    Amen! So glad HCF will lead the effort for City to incentivize MM housing zoning that I’ve been preaching since before the City Plan analysis. Thank you.

  5. Lynn McBride says:

    This is an admirable plan. It is way too little, and way too late. The zoning laws and city plan should have been changed BEFORE every inch of available land was covered with these ill conceived monstrous buildings, not afterwards. Everyone is complaining about them, and it doesn’t take an architect or city planner to figure out how truly horrible they are for the city. They were driven by greed, and they have destroyed the look and feel of our beautiful city. The city could have stopped this, and did not.

  6. Glenda Nemes says:

    Do zoning ordinances and building regs need to be changed to accomplish this? If so, the voting citizens need to elect City Council members who will fix this. Why let Developers be in charge of what Charleston’s future will look like! It’s already too late to fix a lot of poor unintelligent development. Elect the people who are forward thinking and not just approve anything that increases the tax base. Be smarter and look for more community benefit.

  7. Andie Kennedy says:

    EXCELLENT, SUCCINCT & TRUTHFUL response, Lynn McBride. I have said the same things you have pointed out here for years, going back to 1994. At this point the damage has already been done. Too late!

  8. Tim Rinaman says:

    This insightful analysis provides excellent information! Certainly, preserving the look of Charleston as much as possible must become a higher priority, given the approvals and building already underway. To preclude further mistakes, the information needs to be communicated widely in the city to make everyone aware of this growing need for affordable housing. Too many people are unaware of the shortfall, much less the block analysis!

  9. Dyke Messler says:

    This is good news! Charleston has become the land of cranes and the new construction is mostly huge, ugly boxes. I want to be first in line for one of those super luxury apartments overlooking the onramp to I26 or the rail yard next to Harris Teeter! Good grief!

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