“Growth is inevitable and desirable, but destruction of community character is not. The question is not whether your part of the world is going to change. The question is how.” — Edward McMahon, Urban Land Institute
By W. Foster Gaillard – Union Pier represents the most significant redevelopment opportunity in downtown Charleston in decades, and we must not squander this golden opportunity to do something very special on this site.
Sadly, the S.C. State Ports Authority’s proposed redevelopment plan does the opposite: Not only will it do very little to enhance what makes Charleston such a special place, but in many respects it is antithetical to our city’s community character.
The planned unit development rezoning now underway is fundamentally flawed. The city’s zoning ordinance provides that before approving any PUD application, the Planning Commission and City Council must first find that the application is consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan.
Union Pier, however, was excluded from the city comprehensive plan.
As a result, the process is turned upside down. With Union Pier, the city has no comprehensive plan to guide its redevelopment and planning, so it’s being placed in the impossible position of reacting to a plan proposed by the SPA rather than the SPA being forced to develop a plan consistent with the city’s vision.
The plan’s height, scale and mass are all too big; its open spaces are too few and too small. There are too many hotel rooms, not enough affordable housing, and the traffic plan needs improvement. It would lead to block after block of outsized six- and seven-story buildings.
Most adjoining parcels are limited to three or four stories. In fact, no new buildings taller than five stories are currently allowed south of Calhoun Street except near the medical complex, the Jasper property, along portions of King and Meeting streets and on one parcel at Calhoun and Concord streets.
A 1996 plan prepared for the Ports Authority by Ehrenkrantz & Eckstut Architects cites key principles as the foundation for any Union Pier master plan, including preserving “Charleston’s traditional elements of urban design and planning, … human scale, and a respect for precedent.” This earlier plan also recommended that Union Pier’s development should “feel like the rest of downtown, a successful mix of residential structures, office, shops and restaurants” and says “human-scaled urban environments are fundamental to society.”
Instead, the Ports Authority’s current plan for multiple blocks of six- and seven-story buildings would create a canyon-like atmosphere found in many large urban areas. It has little that feels like the rest of downtown Charleston, little that is human-scaled and little that respects the city’s urban planning precedents.
The Charleston Downtown Plan adopted in 1999 recommends no more than 200 hotel rooms at Union Pier, just a third of the 600 rooms proposed by the Ports Authority. Even 200 hotel rooms are excessive considering existing city ordinances limiting the size and location of new hotels south of Calhoun Street.
The authority does, to its credit, propose a significant financial contribution to the Charleston Housing Authority as well as a Union Pier Workforce Housing Trust Fund, but calls for only 50 on-site affordable housing units. At 600 hotel rooms and only 50 on-site desperately needed affordable housing units, it is patently clear the plan is geared toward tourists, not residents.
The plan also ignores the height regime codified in the city zoning ordinances requiring that higher structures be located along the spine of the peninsula, with heights tapering down toward the water’s edge.
This plan appears to be driven by one goal: Squeeze as much profit as possible from Union Pier to pay for the Leatherman Terminal. The Leatherman Terminal is important, but its financial burden should be borne by the state as a whole and should not fall disproportionately on Charleston through excessive height and density and poor planning.
Charleston’s existing neighborhoods near Union Pier are among the finest examples in the world of successful urban planning, but this plan is more like what Jane Jacobs describes in her classic book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”: a “determination to ignore empiric success.”
Union Pier’s draft planned unit development would cram in too much height and too much density and would sacrifice good urban planning and future livability to the altar of excessive profits.
It is time to slow down the process, take a step back, reexamine the Union Pier development plan and let the city and the community drive the planning process, not the Ports Authority.
– W. Foster Gaillard is a former Charleston City Council member, past chairman of the City Tourism Commission and a former chairman of Historic Charleston Foundation.