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Union Pier: ‘It’s the most important project we’ll see in our lifetime’

The Advocate

By Jay Williams, Jr.

“Union Pier will be redeveloped into a space that benefits the city and its residents,” South Carolina State Ports Authority (SPA) CEO Barbara Melvin promises.

“It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something spectacular,” touts City Councilmember Mike Seekings.

“It’s at a scale that’s never been seen before,” says Winslow Hastie, President and CEO of Historic Charleston Foundation.

That’s not hyperbole. Never again will Charleston see a project as consequential as the redevelopment of Union Pier. At 70 acres, it’s likely the last substantial plot of undeveloped urban waterfront land on the East Coast.

“We are looking at putting in greenspaces and public waterfront access,” says the SPA’s Melvin. Union Pier could and should be, “an amazing extension of the historic city,” says Hastie.

There is excitement for what Union Pier might become, but the project is moving quickly. Now is the time to slow down to ensure that all voices can be heard.

For more than a decade, “The Advocate,” neighborhood, preservation groups and many others challenged the negative impacts of Carnival’s home-ported ships on Charleston. The soot-belching Sunshine and accompanying cruise traffic and congestion presented many problems for residents and contributed little in return. Finally, the SPA canceled Carnival Cruise Line’s contract for 2025 and agreed to sell most of the immensely valuable Union Pier property for development. It was a win-win decision for the Ports coffers and Charleston’s future.

With Melvin now at the helm, the SPA heralds that it’s a “new era,” and that we can “let bygones be bygones.” Melvin has committed to a collaborative public process to guide a master plan that prioritizes the community’s needs.

The SPA has engaged Los Angeles-based Lowe Corporation to help generate plans for the site and market the property to potential buyers. Lowe’s point person on the project is Jacob Lindsey, a highly respected former city planner. In turn, Lowe enlisted an impressive group of consultants and engineers to assess every aspect of the project from architecture to flooding, and they’ve hosted events to gather ideas and feedback from the public. So far, so good.

What does the public want?

“The Advocate” heard about the public’s recommendations for Union Pier: Extend the downtown street grid, including Wentworth and Society streets, from the existing historic neighborhoods into a quality mixed-use Union Pier community with street views through to the water; extend Waterfront Park; develop human scale buildings that reflect the look and feel of downtown; reinstate Concord Street, improve Washington Street, and reduce traffic on East Bay Street. People want quality architecture and construction and the small-scale feel of historic Charleston at Union Pier.

The public doesn’t want big, boxy buildings. Or a flat, wall-like, unmodulated skyline. Another Morrison Yard, West Edge or Morrison Drive. No thanks to tall buildings, hotels or noisy bars — or density. Attuned residents know that although key planning documents call for higher buildings along the spine of the peninsula and lower buildings near the water, they’ve seen too many jarring exceptions. And they’re worried.

Slow this down.

Winslow Hastie outlined what’s next. “The Union Pier master plan should be done in the next month or two, and then it will quickly go to the Planning Commission for Planned Unit Development (PUD) approval and then to City Council. It’s pretty much on a fast track.”

He added that with the current plans as vague as they are, it’s difficult to solicit specific public feedback in these SPA public engagement sessions.

Unfortunately, the SPA hosted its “fourth and final public meeting” on October 27, so any additional public input will be relegated to the Planning Commission and City Council meetings, and that input can only be reactive. Thus, in two or three city meetings, this vast 70-acre PUD could be approved without any further discussions between the developers and the public.

That must change for a project that’s this immense and important.

“We need to make sure that we’ve got everything in the PUD that we need and want,” Hastie says. “At the end of the day, public sentiment is one thing, but whatever is in the PUD from the zoning perspective is what will happen, and that we can’t rely on the Board of Architectural Review to change anything, because that’s not happening.”

And there’s more involved than meets the eye. Consider the flood protection needed for Union Pier and the surrounding neighborhoods. As Councilmember Seekings points out, “This plot of land will be developed well in advance of any government efforts, including the Army Corps, to protect Charleston from flooding. This offers a real chance to look at some responsible, thoughtful, and integrated water management and perimeter protection. The developer’s strategy here may inform and influence what we do for the rest of the city.” The public must see and be reassured by those water management plans, too.

What’s at stake?

“It’s the most important project we’ll see in our lifetime,” says real estate agent and preservationist Kristopher King. “It will not only determine the future of livability but the type of tourism that we pursue. Do developers continue with the plan to pull in big numbers, not unlike the cruise ship approach? Or will they try to do something that’s more authentic and more diverse? They have to create that DNA with their plan. I think understanding the economic analysis for the project will be important.”

King, the former executive director of the Preservation Society, emphasized that, “You need quality at Union Pier. You want it to be an extension of the existing community, so you take those lessons of the historic city and you apply them to Union Pier. That helps inform block size, street configuration, even building footprint, so that it’s an almost seamless transition as you move from the existing neighborhoods into this new district.”

A critical component of this new development will be the ownership structure. King asks, “How will this project make Charleston a better place to live or visit, and how will it best support property values? Home ownership should be a central part of the plan. If you want this district to take on the quality and feel of the surrounding neighborhoods, you need people invested.

“The Port has signaled that they want to do things in a different way, and I hope they follow through on that. When people walk through this area 20 years from now, what will matter is the quality of the finished product. We can’t put all the emphasis on waterfront access and ignore the DNA of the neighborhoods that surround it. The connection of the people to their neighborhoods is crucial.” King added.

Let’s get this right.

At those SPA-hosted public meetings, the community was only able to provide general feedback on vague plans. That’s not enough.

The SPA and Lowe should immediately announce that once the specific plans for Union Pier are complete, they’ll host additional interactive meetings to share and engage their plan with the community well before it will be placed on Planning Commission or City Council agendas.

The final approval of the most important project we’ll see in our lifetime cannot be left to 13 people as opposed to the community at large.

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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