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The Advocate: Union Pier — Imagine a better plan.

By Jay Williams, Jr.

Beautiful, pastel-colored images accompany the State Ports Authority’s (SPA) video voiceover: “Imagine more green spaces in our downtown … Imagine more housing on the peninsula including affordable and workforce housing. Imagine new buildings that fit seamlessly into our city’s texture.”

“Imagine” is the operative word. Because the plans the SPA has submitted for this incredibly valuable 70-acre waterfront site will authorize more architectural abominations (like Morrison Yard) that stand in stark contrast to our city’s historic character, architecture and human-scale texture. (The comparison becomes crystal clear in the graphic below.)

Forget the SPA’s pretty pictures and inspiring descriptions — its Planned Unit Development (PUD) calls for some 26 mostly six and seven-story blocks developers call “Texas donuts” to house 1600 residential units, 540,000 square feet of office and retail space and 600 hotel rooms. As for workforce housing, there are only 50 of them (about three percent of the total units).

Yet it’s on a fast track for approval. Although the SPA and Lowe (its developer partner) added a green promenade from the Bennett Rice Mill façade to the river and made other small changes, they rejected most of the recommendations made by the city’s Technical Review Committee and planning staff that included limiting hotel rooms to 300, reducing building heights and adding more upland green space. Undaunted, the Ports Authority is sailing full speed ahead into the all-important June 7 Planning Commission meeting to seek approval.

We must slow down this process. If the Planning Commission gives approval for the SPA’s PUD plan, it would go to City Council as soon as July! Where are the public comments? Remember last year’s elaborate listening sessions the SPA conducted? What happened to those comments? The residents with whom we spoke want green spaces for parks and recreation, the street grid extended out to the water and architecturally rich, human-scale buildings to create a seamless transition from our historic downtown. They must have ignored those comments.

“This PUD plan needs a lot of improvement. We would like to see a process set up for that. There’s also a time factor that the Port has imposed that feels arbitrary and limits the right kind of community dialogue for getting to a better place,” says Brian Turner, president & CEO of the Preservation Society of Charleston. “We were surprised by their plan. Then the changes from the SPA’s initial plan to their latest plan were minimal,” Turner added. “If you read through the PUD, you come to realize how few restrictions they’ve imposed to prevent the type of development that Charlestonians are just sick of. They’ve given themselves maximum discretion to build big buildings on the site.”

To show what the SPA’s PUD will allow, The Preservation Society commissioned 3-D renderings of the proposed Union Pier project and surrounding neighborhoods using marketing material and publicly available data, including from the DNR, city of Charleston and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to produce a model to compare the scale of the existing historic city with Union Pier plans.

The renderings are disturbing. To counter the blocky density, the SPA is providing only the bare minimum of useable upland green space. “The Port sees dollar signs by maximizing the square footage of building blocks, but open space and places that the public can use also create value,” Turner said. “Put it in the PUD.”

Yes, the SPA and Lowe have made many noncommittal assurances. “We want to do the right thing, we want something we can all be proud of, we want this to be of Charleston. They have all these ads, ‘designed with Charleston in mind,’” said Winslow Hastie, President and CEO of Historic Charleston Foundation. “OK, fine. Show me.” Faith Rivers James, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, adds, “Put it in the PUD.”

Perhaps the SPA’s Union Pier website video will allay your concerns with its pretty watercolors and reassuring voiceover. It shouldn’t. The only thing that matters is what is codified in the PUD. And right now, the PUD includes only plans for large blocks of mostly six and seven-story buildings, many perched on a 16-foot ridge.

Hastie puts it this way: “The SPA says they want this to be a seamless transition to the city. But if you give somebody a bundle of rights with few restrictions, they’re going to take it and run with it and push, push, push. They’re not going to build less: They’re only going to try to do more than they’re granted in this document. So don’t just hope that some altruistic developer is going to come in and want to do a beautiful, human-scale piece of architecture that meets all the criteria that we’re pushing for. Guess what. It’s not going to happen.” He continues, “If you do these huge development pads, which is essentially what this is, we’re going to see each one maxed out to the edge. Look at West Edge, Morrison Yard or 295 Calhoun, because that’s what we’re getting. Don’t fool yourself that somehow because it’s at Union Pier that it’s going to be different. Unless … we codify it in this PUD document.”

Including denial, the city has other options. The city could first finish the Peninsula Plan — its predecessor, the 1999 Downtown Plan, featured a whole section on Union Pier. And the city should prioritize the Comprehensive Water Plan as well: We need to understand the ecology here before the SPA is allowed to build a waterfront plan that’s never been done before. The completed Peninsula and Comprehensive Water Plans would provide critical guidance for any construction at Union Pier. And the SPA should remember its larger obligation to the public: Union Pier isn’t private property.

The city needs to right-size this project or deny it. We must help. Make your respectful comments and suggestions at the Planning Commission Meeting, Wednesday, June 7 at 5 p.m. in the Ports Authority Passenger Terminal, 196 Concord St., Charleston. Parking is available in Lot B across from N. Market Street.

Jay Williams, Jr. arrived in Charleston in 2001 to escape the cold and relax in the warmth of a better culture and climate. This all worked well until May of 2011 when he attended a cruise terminal discussion at Physicians Hall.


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