By the Editorial Staff, May 11, 2023 – The staff and governing board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation are not a bunch of hair-on-fire radicals or save-absolutely-everything ideologues, so it’s worth taking seriously its decision to include Charleston’s historic neighborhoods around Union Pier on its annual 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list. Its decision, made public Tuesday, only underscores our call for slowing down the process for rezoning the Union Pier site.
We strongly support redeveloping the 64-acre, largely abandoned industrial waterfront site in a way that complements and strengthens Charleston’s historic core, but it must be done as well as possible, not as quickly as possible.
Serious concerns have arisen over whether the proposed development would be too dense and too tall, as well as whether it would have too many hotel rooms and not enough affordable housing on-site.
“The proposed densities and building heights outlined in the plan could adversely affect critical elements of the historic city’s fine-grained urban character and block views between the nationally significant historic district and the Cooper River waterfront,” the National Trust’s listing notes. “In addition, the proposed development is planned to be constructed on a 16-foot-high elevated platform, which could negatively impact climate resilience for adjacent neighborhoods and the city.”
These challenges are fixable, but it will take time to build consensus around changes; the National Trust is encouraging the city and State Ports Authority, which owns the pier, to “follow a deliberative review process that serves the public’s needs, beginning with a community-led vision, especially given the scale of this proposed development. As Charleston faces increasing pressures from development and climate change, advocates believe that a more robust, inclusive community visioning process is critical to help create a plan for Union Pier that respects Charleston’s significant history, diverse population, and architectural character, while improving the city’s climate resilience.”
Union Pier’s redevelopment could be a good thing, as it would convert a largely blighted industrial site into an extension of the city’s historic street grid, with major new public parks along the Cooper River and around the historic Bennett Rice Mill façade . It would be a tremendous loss if the community cannot ultimately get to yes. To help that along, the Ports Authority can do more to clarify what might happen on the property if City Council were to reject the redevelopment request. Understanding that alternative future for the site would help clarify the city’s choice.
The coalition led by the Preservation Society of Charleston, Historic Charleston Foundation and the Coastal Conservation League began holding sessions this week and will hold two more next week.
This is not the first time Charleston has made the 11 Most Endangered list. The National Trust has twice listed the historic upper Ashley River as endangered because of increased development pressures.
The National Trust even placed Charleston on a related watch list in 2011 because of the Ports Authority’s plan at the time to expand its cruise ship operations at Union Pier. Those designations helped draw national attention to threats that previously had been considered almost exclusively through a local lens. The listing added credence to the ultimately successful arguments of those who feared that a greatly expanded cruise ship operation, one that would have redeveloped a large chunk of the property with a new passenger terminal and supporting infrastructure, would have a net negative impact on the historic city next door.
We hope the current listing has a similar beneficial effect. But instead of blocking a Union Pier plan, we hope it helps make it better.