CHS |  In the company of strangers

There’s an undercurrent moving through town.  It’s a sentiment of frustration turned to sadness, a sense of resignation.  You may have noticed an undertone, even among some Charleston’s stalwarts, that they no longer view the Holy City as their forever home.

Five years ago that would have been unthinkable.

“When I walk down King Street, I seldom see people I know.  I used to see friends, neighbors…now there are only tourists and strangers,” a local hotelier lamented.  He is not alone.

Many local businesses and old friends have left the street.  Morris Sokol, Bob Ellis, Rapport, Tellis Pharmacy, Sylvan Gallery, Dixie Furniture, Kerrison’s Jewelers, Charleston Paints, A. Fairfax Antiques, Sermet’s, Hughes Lumber, Il Cortile Del Re, and many others have shuttered.

In this challenging retail environment, stores come and go, but Charleston’s loss of longtime established stores is exceptional, and many attribute this profound transformation to a combination of high rents and exploding property values that make it difficult for local businesses to continue and easy for them to sell.

The influx of new hotels is also to blame for our sense of isolation.  For the most part, hotels are not places locals visit except for special occasions.  Hotels aren’t shops where people can browse and relax, or places where locals buy things for themselves or their homes, or restaurants where they meet and dine with friends.  Hotels may be in the city, but they are seldom a part of the city.  Hotels are buildings of strangers, often built by strangers.

And there are a lot of hotels

The best estimate is that there are some 6,500 hotel rooms on the peninsula that are open and running, under construction, or in planning and development.  That number doesn’t begin to tell the whole story.

There are 222 hotels with 19,405 rooms in the larger “Charleston market,” which includes rooms off the peninsula, operating, under construction or in planning, according to Smith Travel Research’s STAR Report.  That also includes 3,185 of what some might term “hidden rooms” that are invisible because they’re still in various stages of planning and development.  Soon enough, you’ll see them.

For a market of Charleston’s size, 222 hotels with 19,405 rooms is a lot.  And while not all these “guests” will come onto the peninsula, a lot of them will.

Have we passed the tipping point?  One hotelier says “yes, but Charleston is a hot market right now that investors just want to be here.  Some are playing with foundation and pension fund money, it’s not theirs,” our source says, adding, “Some of these new hotels will cost $400,000 to $500,000 a key to build,” because property here is so expensive, “and that’s not sustainable.”

“It’s also a cyclical business,” he added as a warning, “there are no long term leases renting rooms, and this business is greatly impacted by the state of the economy.”  And, as a resident, he adds his primary concern: “What’s been lost is the balance between tourism and the local economy.  For every new hotel that goes up, an office building, apartments, grocery store, hardware store or other local business is sacrificed.  And so is more of the character of Charleston.”

And if that’s not enough, there’s another factor aggravating the growing tourist issue and diminishing the character of Charleston: STR’s, or short-term rentals.

Airbnb and VRBO are just two of the online websites individuals can use to list and rent an extra bedroom or an entire house.  Because of the havoc unregulated rentals can create, STR’s are illegal in most of Charleston, but that hasn’t stopped them from proliferating.

Short-term rental problems can be immediate and severe.  Renters gobble up resident parking spaces, can come and go at all hours, and often create an intensity of use that’s incompatible with single-family residential neighbors.  Some landlords have converted apartments into short-term rental spaces, displacing service workers, medical students and others, further eroding the affordable housing market.

The number of rooms posted online is difficult to determine, but there’s no shortage of listings:  “Prime Charleston Downtown,” “Luxurious Condo in Downtown Historic District,” and “5 Bedroom home in historic Harleston Village area, sleeps 12 very comfortably.”  This last listing brings new meaning to “friends and family.”  These clusters of ever-arriving, ever changing renters will be complete strangers, not neighbors with a concern for the neighborhood.

Are there any solutions?

 In an article titled “What Happens When a Destination Becomes too Popular,” Conde¢ Nast Traveler, the same magazine that keeps giving Charleston awards it doesn’t need, admitted the problem with tourism.  Early on, revenue from more adventurous travelers can boost local economies, but then tourism changes the infrastructure of the destination, homogenizes it with chain stores and souvenir shops, and that changes the type of travelers who visit, stresses the destination’s resources and causes a decline.

Amsterdam, like Barcelona, is taking action against the worldwide tourism explosion, and has limited development of both hotels and short-term rentals in the city center.  Similar action is urgently needed in Charleston, yet over the past 15 months, the Planning Commission and City Council combined have blocked five separate attempts to limit hotel development.

“I do believe that our city is nearing the tipping point on the number of hotels on our peninsula…and our own numerical analysis shows that we are becoming more like tourist dominated cities and less like balanced cities in terms of rooms per resident,” City Planner Jacob Lindsey acknowledged.

The City will return to the Planning Commission soon with a new proposal to limit hotel development.  Concurrently, the City’s STR Task Force is looking at options to control short-term rentals and may recommend specific changes as early as June.

But these attempts have failed previously.  What will make it different this time?

Only three actions will save this city:

1)  Preservation organizations and neighborhood associations must join together and coordinate their efforts all over Charleston, including West Ashley.  Charleston needs to stop overdevelopment, and West Ashley needs an infusion of responsible mixed-use development.  Working together is the only way both can happen.

2)  All city council members must be far more responsive to the peninsula’s quality of life.  West Ashley’s suburban investment potential is doomed if the core peninsula is degraded.

3)  Every resident must take action.  Call, email, and write the mayor and every member of the planning commission and city council, not just your own representative.  Tell them you want strict limits on all new hotels and enforcement of the short-term rental ban.  Follow up with them; your opinion counts.

“Our city is unique in the demand placed upon it because of its incredibly high profile in combination with the incredibly small area of the peninsula,” Jacob Lindsey said.  “That makes us feel it’s important to update our accommodation regulations.”

Lindsey concluded, “There’s a critical quality of life issue for our city that has to be addressed.  Smart tourism regulation is something we have to do.”

Now it’s up to us, all of us.


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Jay Williams Jr.

[CHS | A Blog About Charleston.  Please share with friends.  To subscribe/unsubscribe, write your preference in the subject line and reply.  Comments are always welcome and, if published, will be posted anonymously.  The opinions expressed here are mine.]

Also published as “The Advocate” on page 2 of the current issue of The Charleston Mercury.