A proposal to transform Union Pier, one of the largest waterfront properties in downtown Charleston, is headed for a collision course with members of the public.

Ahead of a June 7 city Planning Commission meeting, nearly 500 people submitted comments online weighing in on a project that could potentially create a new neighborhood on the peninsula. Charlestonians are also expected to show up in person to provide hours of testimony before the commission.

Over the last several weeks, local advocates have rushed to parse through and communicate their opinions on the nearly 400-page planning document for the site, which has been updated numerous times. The most recent version was made available last week.

The proposal calls for 500,000 square feet of retail and office space, 1,600 residential units and buildings no taller than  seven stories.

A reworked version of an affordable-housing plan for the site requires 290 affordable units be built within 12 years. But a credit system included in the newest version of the proposal would allow the property developer to reduce that number to no less than 10 percent of the total units on site, if other conditions are met.

If 1,600 residential units are built, as is proposed, that would amount to a minimum of 160 affordable units on site.

Earlier requirements that call for a permanent affordable housing fund for the city using a real estate transaction fee and $16 million toward an ongoing housing effort nearby remain in the updated document.

As a result of the new changes to the plan and other concerns about the pace of the project, a coalition of The Historic Charleston Foundation, the Coastal Conservation League and the Preservation Society of Charleston will ask the Planning Commission to deny the proposed zoning document, known as a Planned Unit Development, for the 64-acre property.

Even if theirs and other voices are heard, the project will still ultimately reach City Council for final consideration by mid-July. That’s because state law requires such proposals reach a governing body within a month of their review before a planning commission. The commission’s role is to recommend approval or denial to council, not stop a project altogether. Although City Council will have the final say, the June 7 meeting will be the first opportunity for the city to formally support or oppose the project.

The South Carolina Ports Authority owns the property and plans to sell it once a redevelopment plan is approved. Its officials have said repeatedly that the proposal is a work in progress and will incorporate community feedback. The proposal itself is designed by Los Angeles-based real estate development firm Lowe.

“The proposal is going through the city’s public approval process,” Ports Authority officials said in a statement. “The city has rigorous standards, and the development will meet those standards.”

But the zoning approvals being considered set the ceiling for what is allowed on the property, including how tall and how dense it can become, as well as how much affordable housing and park space will be required.


‘More questions than ever’

While many agree that the site should be redeveloped, community members have voiced a desire to slow the planning process down and allow for more community input.

The Port Authority solicited ideas from the public beginning in August, two months after it was announced it would transition away from homeport cruising. But when a final plan was drawn up and revealed at the beginning of this year, several groups criticized the lack of features requested through the input process.

Since then, the proposal has been altered multiple times, but its overall design hasn’t changed substantially.

When the proposal went before Charleston’s Technical Review Committee, city staff submitted a slew of comments and suggestions for the redevelopment plans. Those included more park space, smaller building footprints, more affordable housing and less hotel rooms allowed on site. The TRC serves to advise developers about what roadblocks they may encounter in future city permitting processes, but it does not have any ability to stop a project outright.

April 5 Press Conference, Jacob Lindsay (Lowe) and Barbara Melvin (State Ports Authority)

After the TRC recommended that the plan be revised and returned for additional review, the Port Authority took the rare step of advancing it to Planning Commission anyway.

The pace at which the proposal is moving through the city review processes is making it challenging for those interested in the finer points of the plan to review the proposal’s various iterations.

“We are going into (Planning Commission) with more questions than ever,” said Sam Spence, director of public affairs for the Preservation Society of Charleston.


Commission votes

The Planning Commission will take four separate votes related to the rezoning of the Union Pier proposal. Altogether, those votes will set the recommended limits for what can and cannot be done on the property, even if the proposal is altered later on.

“This rezoning is going to provide a blank check for a developer to build whatever is in that (Planned Unit Development),” said Robby Maynor, a program director with the Coastal Conservation League.

The first vote will be on an amendment to the city’s comprehensive plan so that it changes the recommended use for the Union Pier property. A comprehensive plan is a document that South Carolina state law requires cities adopt every 10 years. Through a rigorous planning and public input process, a comprehensive plan dictates what a city recommends nearly every property in the city be used for. Although it is not legally binding, the plan is the main document that the commission uses to guide its decisions.

When Charleston adopted its comprehensive plan in 2021, the Union Pier property was labeled as a “future planning area,” with no specific guidelines for its use. The Port Authority is now requesting it be amended to give the Union Pier property the comprehensive plan’s “city center” designation. That label calls for the most dense development allowed in the city.

But members of groups such as the Historic Charleston Foundation say that the site’s label should be determined in the same way the rest of the plan is drawn up. It should be decided via city planners, public input and paid consultants, not the request of a single land owner.

The Trident Association of Realtors disagrees. The group submitted comments to the Planning Commission asking it to recommend approval of the plan.

“The lack of developable land in Charleston is a significant driver of housing costs. Without the necessary density, the units created are far more expensive than if a smart land use strategy was used. The smartest land use is to have higher density in areas such as Union Pier,” reads the comment signed by Josh Dix, the association’s government affairs director.

The second vote by the Planning Commission will determine whether or not the commission recommends that the City Council approve the Planned Unit Development proposal, which is the 400-page document that lays out how the property can be built out.

The third vote will determine height limits for the property; and the fourth will determine whether hotels are allowed.

Height limits for the property have been contested by city staff, the mayor, and the coalition of preservation and environmental groups. Although some adjustments have been made to the distribution of height limits on the site, the planning document still allows for up to seven-story buildings.

The latest proposal also removed any reference to an overall limit on the number of hotel rooms allowed on the property. The plan originally called for a maximum of 600 hotel rooms. City staff recommended that be reduced to 300.

When asked by The Post and Courier why the maximum number of hotel rooms was removed from the planning document, Port Authority officials said the number is still under negotiation and will be determined later.

Other aspects of the plan remained largely the same between the last TRC review and the submission to Planning Commission. That includes the park space and stormwater management strategies.

The new version includes a specific plan to phase in park space in a specific order. A promenade around the Bennett Rice Mill façade will be built out first, along with the northern half of the property. Additional park space will in phase two of the build out on the southern half of the property. The waterfront park will be built out last, according to the planning document.

Maynor said he is unsure that the last phase of the park space at the waterfront will be built out as proposed because of its location on top of existing piers in the Cooper River. The proposal would require a complex series of approvals from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The stormwater management proposals remained largely the same. Those include building the site on top of over 15 feet of fill, incorporating green infrastructure like bioswales and building a portion of a storm surge protection wall.

Maynor said those appear less detailed than in previous versions and are still not binding enough to ensure they will be built out as proposed.

When asked to comment on the overall document and the affordable housing components of the plan, city staffers declined on June 6. They said they were still reviewing the document.


Next steps

The Planning Commission will meet at 5 p.m. June 7 at the S.C. Ports Authority passenger terminal at 196 Concord St. Doors will open an hour and a half early to accommodate a large turnout, if necessary.

The commission, which is made up of volunteers with backgrounds in planning, architecture and similar fields, will have the option to vote on whether to recommend that City Council approve or deny the Union Pier items. It can also simply hear public input and defer any vote.

They have until July 10 to schedule a vote. If they do not, it will automatically advance to City Council with a favorable recommendation.

City Council will vote on the proposal July 18. They are not obligated to follow the Planning Commission recommendation. They can also attach their own stipulations to the proposal. City Council can defer their vote for up to one year, after which the proposal will be automatically denied if it is not voted on.