Charleston has problems. Big problems.
The weather is great, we have beaches, a beautiful historic city and a growing economy. As a result:
People want to visit Charleston.
Charleston has been voted the #1 place in the U.S. to visit for several years, major industries are moving to the Lowcountry, we have festivals out the wazoo, our restaurant scene is amazing and growing, there is a thriving cruise industry, we have Bill Murray and the list goes on.
To make matters worse, new hotels are being constructed to serve the growing demand.
New hotels and inns are being built, old ones are being refurbished, air bnb's are slipping under the radar and the people of Charleston are pissed.
"No more!," says Charleston.
Bye Bye Joe, Hello John
The concern over hotels and tourism was perhaps one of the main reasons John Tecklenburg is sitting in the Mayor’s Office and not Leon Stavrinakis. The Mayoral race was very close with Tecklenburg picking up some late momentum that ultimately won him the mayoral seat.
One of Mayor Tecklenburg's campaign strategies was touting that he would put a pause on new hotel development.
Read more of Mayor Tecklenburg's Plan: Our Quality of Life First
The title of the report says it all: Our Quality of Life First.
A Hotel Moratorium?
Mayor Tecklenburg followed through with his campaign promise and brought a bill to City Council on February 23rd that would initiate a moratorium on new hotel development south of Mt. Pleasant Street.
The City Council had different plans. The councilmen decided not to act on the bill and instead proposed that a study be developed on future hotel development. The timeframe for the study was 90 days so look for this report around the end of May.
Makes for a great news story.
Apparently the hotel boom makes for great news. You can count on the Post and Courier for a hotel article about every 2 weeks. Here are a few that I read while preparing for this article:
One common thread in these hotel articles are statistics about the kajillion hotels that are planned and will be built over night.
So what's the problem with hotels anyway?
While we await the 90 day study, I have decided to dig into this debate myself. I know a few things about hotels and commercial development. Last year LS3P celebrated the opening of The Grand Bohemian, The Spectator and the revamped Vendue.
I am going to look at this issue from the lens of urban design. There are definitely other effects caused by hotels such as job creation and an increased tax base, but I am no expert in those fields. I will let someone else make that analysis.
So let's get into it. I made a list of the 4 most common concerns/questions I have heard and read about in regards to hotels in Charleston.
Are hotels a leading cause for traffic and congestion in Charleston?
Is there even enough demand for all of these hotels in Charleston?
If these hotels in Charleston go out of business, what will we do with all of these empty hotel buildings?
All of this hotel development in Charleston is happening too fast! We need to slow down and the City needs to do a study.
1. Are hotels a leading cause for traffic and congestion in Charleston?
Traffic seems to be on the tip of everyone's tongue. And this hotel boom must be a catalyst...right?
Let's looks at the math. Let's compare the following building types: a hotel, an apartment building and an office building. For each case we will study a building that is 50,000sf and determine how many cars are required.
For this analysis we will use the City of Charleston parking requirements. I have been told by the City of Charleston that the zoning parking requirements are based off of market demand.
Some regulations you need to know about the City of Charleston and parking:
Hotel – 2 cars required for every 3 hotel rooms
Office – 1 car required for every 500sf of useable office space
Residential – 1.5 cars required for every unit
Retail – 1 car required for every 400sf of gross space
How many cars are required for a 50,000 sf Hotel in Charleston?
The Math (How'd I do that?)
Typical downtown hotels have approximately 1 room for every 1,000 sf of building. Hotels with a lot of meeting space, amenities and restaurants tend to have a higher area per room such as 1,250sf. A smaller limited service hotel will have about 800sf per room. For the purposes of this discussion we will use 1,000sf, therefore our 50,000sf hotel will have 50 rooms. Using the City of Charleston parking requirements that will be 33.33 cars ((50/3)*2). The City requires you to round up so our 50 room hotel will require 34 cars.
How many cars are required for a 50,000 sf Apartment Building in Charleston?
The Math (How'd I do that?)
A typical apartment building will have an efficiency ratio of 85%. Therefore a 50,000sf residential will have 42,500sf of rentable space for apartments. If we use an average unit size of 850sf, then our 42,500sf of rentable office space will yield 50 apartments ((50,000*.85)/850). These 50 apartments will require 75 cars. (50*1.5)
How many cars are required for a 50,000 sf Office Building in Charleston?
The Math (How'd I do that?)
A typical office will have 85% of the building as useable. The rest is chalked up to restrooms, corridors, mechanical space, stairs and elevators. Threfore our 50,000 sf office will have 42,500sf of useable office space. Using the City of Charleston parking requirements, the 42,500sf of useable office will require 85 cars (42,500/500).
One thing I should point out is that most of our office clients prefer to have 3 cars per 1000sf. And in the suburbs 4 cars/1000sf is common. But to stay consistent in this study we will use the City of Charleston's requirement of 2 per 1000. So 85 cars for our 50,000sf office.
50K sf Hotel vs 50K sf Apartment Bldg vs 50K sf Office Bldg
What about 50,000sf of Retail?
The retail calculation is easy since it is a gross calculation. 50,000sf of retail would require 125 cars (50,000/400). The City of Charleston requires 1 car for every 400sf of retail space.
Most of the existing retail on the peninsula does not have parking and has been grandfathered. Some argue that the biggest cause for congestion downtown is people circling the block looking for parking spaces.
What about 50,000sf of Single Family Houses?
This isn’t really relevant because these hotels are being built in locations not suitable for single family homes. But let's assume that it is. If the average house is 1,800 sf then that would yield 28 homes. The City would require each home to have 2 cars, so 56 total. Let's say that these single family homes are rented to college students, 3 students in each home. That’s 84 cars.
Are hotels a major culprit in Charleston's traffic problem?
My little analysis would say no. Not even close. An apartment building requires 2.2 times the amount of cars that a hotel needs, an office building 2.5 times, and the retail building 3.67 times.
Yeah, but still!
Don't trust my voodoo math? Well let's look at it from a common sense perspective.
Let's think about our typical visitor who has ponied up for an expensive hotel in downtown Charleston. There is a good chance that person has flown in and will take an uber or shuttle to their hotel.
But let's say that they do rent a car or drive in to their hotel. How much time do you expect them to be joy-riding around Charleston? Probably not at all. After all, Charleston is one of the most walkable cities in the SouthEast.
Now let's think about the employees at our 50,000 sf office building. How many of those employees do you expect to take public transportation, car pool or ride a bike to work?
Have you stopped laughing?
We have about 70 people at LS3P Charleston and not a one uses public transportation nor does anybody car pool. Public transit wouldn't work for anybody and our schedules make carpooling next to impossible.
There are about 5 of us youngsters who ride our bikes.
Now think about the amount of trips for those office employees. At least 2 per day, 1 in to work, 1 out with the possibility of mid day trips for meetings, lunch and whatnot.
How about our apartment residents?
If we are lucky, those apartment residents are working downtown and walk or ride a bike to work. If we are lucky.
How about our retail shoppers?
People are coming and going from stores and restaurants all day. Many of them circling the block looking for that cheap parking.
Still think hotels are the culprits for traffic and congestion?
I don’t know about you, but the places where I regularly experience heavy traffic are when I commute to James Island, West Ashley, Mt. Pleasant or anywhere on I-26. Traffic on the peninsula seems to be more saturated on the crosstown and connector streets where vehicles are entering and exiting.
I think I have beaten this one up pretty good. Next!
2. Is there even enough demand for all of these hotels in Charleston?
This is another common question. Hence the study ordered by City Council.
This concern is a little silly to me. Why?
Because any real estate developer with a working brain first assess's the demand for a product before beginning the design process. Real Estate developers are extremely risk adverse and conservative.
For example, my hotel clients ALWAYS hire an independent company to perform a feasibility study for their hotel. The study will provide valuable data such as the expected occupancy rate and ADR. In layman's terms, how much money your rooms will sell for and how many rooms you will sell in a year.
This gives the developer data they need for their proforma and will determine the viability of the hotel. This study will occur before they give us the first call. If these numbers are not promising then we will never even begin design. It will fade into oblivion.
Should the City spend tax dollars on a hotel study? Seems counterproductive.
3. If these hotels in Charleston go out of business what will we do with all of these empty hotel buildings?
Has anyone seen a vacant hotel building around Charleston? The only vacant hotels I recall seeing are a collection of creepy motels along interstate 95 around South of the Border.
But let's at least entertain the idea of a Hotel going out of business. It’s certainly possible.
This fear questions whether a hotel can be converted into another use?
The Restoration on King
The Restoration on King was originally designed as condominiums. During the recession the building was converted into the Luxury Hotel that we know today. Because it was originally condos, the hotel has some of the largest hotel suites in the City. As a result, the Restoration has some of the highest room rates on the Peninsula. If condominiums can be converted into a hotel, then it seems plausible that the reverse could occur.
The Old Federal Building
The former L. Mendel Rivers Federal Building has sat vacant since 1999, when Hurricane Floyd damaged the structure. The building is slated to reopen in 2016, as a 5-star hotel by Dewberry Capital. If an office building can be converted into a hotel then the opposite could occur.
At the corner of George and East Bay sits a collection of historic houses that form the luxurious Zero George Hotel. There are smaller inns and bed and breakfasts all over the peninsula that were former homes. If houses can be converted into a small inn, then it is possible that the opposite could occur.
The original Dock Street Theatre was destroyed in a fire in 1740. Years later the Planters Hotel was built in its place. That hotel eventually went into disrepair and the building was converted into The Dock Street Theatre that we know today. So a hotel can be converted into a theatre.
A hotel cannot be converted into another use? Think again.
If an office building, a condominium and a collection of houses can be turned into a hotel we can assume that the same conversion can be reversed. And if a hotel can be converted into a theatre, that about squashes this argument.
4. All of this hotel development in Charleston is happening too fast! We need to slow down and the City needs to do a study.
Anyone involved with commercial development knows that nothing happens fast. If we are lucky, a typical project will take 12 months for design and permitting with a 12 month construction schedule. So best case scenario is 24 months from initial conception to grand opening. This is the best case and rarely happens.
Most commercial projects will hit a hitch in the road and get delayed at some point. Three years is a better expectation.
Larger hotel projects such as the dual Hyatt's on Spring, the Ritz Carlton on Marion Square and the Dewberry are all in the 5-10 year range.
The steps to getting a hotel permitted.
For a Hotel to get permitted, it requires a minimum of 1 BZA meeting, 3 BAR meetings and 3 TRC meetings. These are meetings that are open to the public and it should be noted that most significant projects require at least 4 BAR meetings, sometimes 5 or 6.
The important thing to note is that there is nothing quick about getting a hotel built. Or any significant project for that matter.
Accommodations Overlay Map
The image above is the City of Charleston Accommodations overlay map. It was last updated in 2013. This map highlights in blue the parcels that can be considered for accommodations uses. That includes Hotels, Bed and Breakfast's as well as Air BnB. You might notice that these uses are concentrated around the commercial core of Meeting and King Street with few exceptions..
Everything South of the Crosstown is limited to 50 rooms except for 7 specific sites that are highlighted.
The point of sharing this is to highlight that there are already limitations in place regulating hotel development.
All of this hotel development is happening too fast? I wish.
So what's so bad about hotels?
Hotels are good stewards.
Remember those 50,000 sf buildings I talked about above? The Hotel, the Office, the Apartment Building and the Retail.
Which ones keep staff on hand 24 hours a day?
Which ones are more likely to be good stewards of their neighborhoods, maintaining their sidewalk, keeping things tidy?
Which ones have the most to gain from creating a safe secure and aesthetically pleasing environment?
The lovely purple tables and chairs found at Theodora Park are set up every morning by the staff at Zero George. Thanks, Zero George!
FQI and Spectator Hotel
The Owners of the French Quarter Inn and Spectator Hotel elevated the sidewalks on Church, Market and State. This elevation mitigates flooding and allows for a more comfortable environment for pedestrians during the market's notorious flooding.
Belmond Charleston Place
One of my colleagues told me that he would take his children to the Charleston Place every year for Christmas to see the massive train exhibit.
So what is so wrong with more hotels in Charleston?
Causing Traffic? unlikely
The idea that hotels are a major contributor to traffic and congestion is false. In fact, the math shows that they contribute less than half of any other building type.
Not enough demand? shouldn't be our problem
Hotel developers assess the viability and risk of each project; therefore, an additional report by the City would appear unnecessary.
What will we do with all of these vacant hotels? not an issue
In the event that a hotel were to go out of business it would not be uncommon for that building to be converted into a different use.
But this is just happening so fast?...really?
Real estate development happening too fast is a myth, especially in Charleston. Any growth projection for this region will show that we cannot build fast enough to keep up with the population.
Hotels are good neighbors providing eyes on the street and acting as good stewards for their surroundings.
So what is it?
Better quality of life? When we talk about quality of life, aren’t we still just talking about traffic? The traffic in James Island, West Ashley, Mt. Pleasant and I-26.
A need for balance? I can buy that.
In addition to more hotels, Charleston needs better infrastructure, Charleston needs more housing at varying income levels, Charleston needs additional office space, Charleston needs more green space. The list goes on.
We are growing at a rapid rate and we need more of everything.
Having additional hotels doesn’t exclude any of these things. Should the City of Charleston discourage hotel development or encourage a diversity of development?
Most of you know that hotel architecture is one of my specialties. So I admit to bringing a biased perspective to this topic. I also admit to being frustrated by the misunderstandings around hotels and growth in Charleston.
I am also biased about city living. My father in-law likes to call my wife and I ‘Yuppies.’ We have always lived and worked in the city and we embrace the quality of life that living in downtown Charleston provides.
I like that I can grab a craft cocktail at the Swanky Spectator Hotel Bar.
I like the activity and buzz that the front door of the Francis Marion creates at King and Calhoun.
I like that Marion Square is about to be bumped up a notch by the addition of 2 new hotels.
I like the steady influx of new and award winning restaurants that have been stoked by the tourism industry.
And I like rubbing elbows with new visitors in one of our favorite neighborhood spots, Wild Flour Pastry, who are happy as hell to visit this wonderful place.
I am biased. I am a yuppie.
I would love to hear what you think. Thank you for your time and please know that I appreciate you.