When it comes to Union Pier, we need to stop talking about the State Ports Authority. The state of South Carolina is the owner, and it is acting like a private developer trying to squeeze every last dollar out of land it was given decades ago.
The owner is one arm of government seeking the approval of another arm of government (Charleston City Council) to secure a big payday. The simple fact is this is not private property. Union Pier belongs to the public.
Anyone who has been paying the slightest bit of attention to the Union Pier saga knows there is no local constituency for what the state and its designated agent, Los Angeles-based Lowe, is selling. All that noise you are hearing is not a few disgruntled neighbors, but a city shouting NO!
In the end, State Ports boss Barbara Melvin, who is running the deal for the state, is counting on the apathy of suburban council members and a grand last-minute concession to maybe double (or whatever it takes) the number of on-site affordable housing units to buy off enough other council votes to get to seven.
Never said but always present is the quiet threat that if Charleston doesn’t like what’s on offer, there’s something else that it will like even less. Too many hotel rooms and pricey apartments? We could sell off Union Pier piece by piece. Or park BMWs there. Maybe more cruise ships rather than fewer?
This is not how government is supposed to work. The entire deal has been rife with conflicts of interest and cronyism from the start.
The Ports Authority, a government agency, hired Lowe, a private developer, to get Union Pier through the city approval process on its timeline. This is the same company that paid the authority $38 million for its former waterfront headquarters on Concord Street in 2017; State Ports then paid Lowe $69,000 a month to lease back the building while it was finishing its new digs on the Wando.
This cozy relationship led the Ports Authority to hire Lowe at $50,000 a month to permit Union Pier. Lowe went on to recruit Jacob Lindsey, Charleston’s former planning director, to negotiate the city’s political gantlet. The most audacious touch of all: Lowe’s absurd sweetheart deal with the Ports Authority for a 9.5% commission if any other developer is chosen.
This is all about the money. The state wants the highest price possible for its 64 acres of waterfront property, which the city foolishly gave away not once but twice, in 1947 and 1994. Imagine where we would be today if the city had leased its waterfront for $1 a year instead of gifting it to the state.
The sale is supposed to finance the expansion of Leatherman Terminal, which today remains mostly idle because of an endless labor dispute the Ports Authority is currently losing. (See cranes sitting silently on the docks.)
If the state wants to expand Leatherman, it should do what it always does: Write a check to the Ports Authority. In 2021, the Legislature agreed to provide $550 million to build a rail yard and operate barges to move cargo containers at the terminal. Write another.
State Ports never tires of reminding us it is responsible for 1 in 10 jobs in South Carolina, but much less discussed is that the vast majority of that economic impact benefits the Upstate and Midlands.
South Carolina is, in fact, rolling in dough. The state is one of the fastest-growing in the country, and its new revenue last year ballooned to $3.8 billion. The state’s debt is the lowest in memory.
There is no reason Charleston should have to live forever with too-tall, too-dense development on its waterfront to pay an outsize share of the cost of Leatherman’s expansion.
The solution to Union Pier lies not in Charleston but in Columbia.
It makes you long for days of the powerful Charleston delegation we no longer have. Gov. Henry McMaster needs to pick up the phone and tell Bill Stern, Ports Authority chairman, that the future of Charleston’s waterfront is every bit as important as new berths at Leatherman.
Thirty years from now, no one will remember the Ports Authority’s big pay day. Union Pier will still be with us, for better or for worse.