Charleston, S.C., mulls whether to promote tourism

Tourists have always been tolerated here with a grim patience. They are seasonal nuisances, like the mosquitoes and palmetto bugs. Endure them; they will leave.

When Charleston's popular young mayor, Joseph Riley Jr., suggested some years ago that the city encourage tourism, he met, not surprisingly, much disgruntlement. And when he proposed aiding a Washington, D.C., developer who wanted to build a massive (by Charleston standards) combination hotel and convention center with retail space, he was nearly run out of town by many residents.

But after four years in which preservationists - a group to which most of the population and all elected officials claim to belong - have battled preservationists, that issue now has been settled.

The Charleston Center will be built and demolition of buildings began in June. Developer Theodore Gould says the center will open in March 1983.

The larger questions of that controversy, however, remain: whether to limit or encourage tourism, how, and where. City officials now have begun to take up those issues. The response of residents hasn't been as heated, but the results could have far more impact on the future of this 300-year-old coastal city.

Encouraged by Gould's plans, a number of other developers now are planning additional hotels, motels, inns, and guest houses. Most, like the center, will be located in the peninsular area of the city. They will nestle up to stunning examples of Georgian, Adams, and Greek Revival architecture - and to the people who have resided in them for generations.

Already the small peninsula includes 1,585 rentable rooms in various-sized establishments. The city knows of developers' plans that could double that figure. Even more rooms are probably being planned, although the city has not yet been informed of them, and at least 1,000 more are being planned outside the peninsula but within Charleston County.

Most people in the city agree that if all these rooms are built and filled, the city will be awash in tourists.

The result could very likely destroy that which the tourists seek: a quiet, residential city in which people live and work unhurried amid architectural treasures.

City officials have decided they need to step back, study the expected impact of tourism in Charleston, and decide what to do about it. The task has fallen to city planner William Wallace.

A draft of his study should be submitted to the Charleston City Council in November, Mr. Wallace says. The final version will be completed a month later. Until then, the city council has essentially placed a moratorium on zoning changes and other actions that would allow hotel construction to begin.

Mr. Wallace sees his project as unique. ''Most cities are trying to get whatever hotel space they can,'' he explains. ''And a few other small areas of tourist interest - Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, for example - have essentially taken a no-growth stand. We're trying to walk between those two extremes.''

The problem facing the planners and council, says Wallace, is to balance market demands with the need to keep Charleston's ''livability'' for residents.

To many of those who have opposed the Charleston Center, nothing could harm the already-established ''livability'' more than the city-supported center will.

By many cities' standards, the project would have drawn little criticism. Compared with developments such as Detroit's gargantuan Renaissance Center, the Charleston Center is strictly a small job. From the bottom of its ground-floor shops to the tip of its elevator shaft, the center will reach just 130 feet. It will not even be the tallest building in the city.

But most of the high construction in Charleston has gone up some distance from the historic district. This, however, will be built in its midst and its mass - a full city block - will dwarf all nearby small-scale structures.

''It's entirely too big for Charleston,'' sniffs one downtown preservationist.

Yet Mayor Riley and his supporters have consistently stood by the scale of the development. They have gained more than $7 million in federal funds for center-related projects. They claim it will act as a magnet to revitalize a downtown shopping area that has lost many of its major stores to the suburbs. Also, they point to 600-700 jobs that should be created, most for the unskilled workers who make up much of the city's 6 percent unemployment rate.

Beyond all this, the anticipated $800,000 in annual tax revenue is much needed by the city.

The center's controversial site was intentionally chosen. The historic district of Charleston is located entirely on its small peninsula. The beautiful residential homes are located there, as well as Episcopal towers and proud, 150 -year-old, three-story shops.

The peninsula, however, has little industry.

Most of the area's jobs are located either across the peninsula's two bordering rivers, the Ashley and Cooper, or in North Charleston. Mayor Riley turned to tourism as a ''nonpolluting'' industry that could provide both tax dollars and jobs.

But tourism is hardly that simple. Tourism today also demands travel in cars - pollution. Comments center opponent Nancy Hawk, ''Tourism produces different forms of pollution,'' such as congestion and noise.

Charleston's peninsula covers only about one square mile of land, and in many places it already is crowded. The addition of those people who will stay in the center's 424 rooms, as they wander the narrow streets or crowd into the city's few good restaurants, will be significant.

The center battle was waged in courtrooms and drawing rooms, before city councils and neighborhood associations. The director of the city's Preservation Society has said: ''I don't know if there's ever been a preservation battle which has caused this many hard feelings.''

Mayor Riley once called for the firing of that director, and the mayor's forces tried to take over the society after it filed a lawsuit with three other groups to stop the center.

''What we've learned from the convention-center battle is very scary to me,'' says Nancy Hawk, a onetime political opponent of Mayor Riley.

''It's that historic districts like ours have no real legal protection from a determined community leader who wants to see something built. We've depended on public opinion and zoning laws - and they can be ignored. They have been here.''

The Charleston Center battle is over, though, and the next issue may be even more difficult to settle:

* How to balance the interests of both developers and residents?

* How to attract tourists, but not too many?

* How to keep Charleston the same, while changing it?

The future of this city could hang in the balance. The lessons learned should be valuable to many other communities from coast to coast.

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