By Editorial Staff, Post & Courier
May 6, 2023 – In one month, the critical request to rezone Union Pier is scheduled to be reviewed by the Charleston Planning Commission, an important milestone in its path toward getting final approval from City Council, which could take its vote as early as July.
Everyone in Charleston should want this largely abandoned industrial waterfront site redeveloped to complement and strengthen Charleston’s historic core, but it increasingly seems as if most everyone involved in the public discussion, at least those without a clear link to the State Ports Authority or its consultant Lowe, still has reservations about the plan, despite the revisions made last month. That’s why we urge the Ports Authority to slow down the process and work to build more consensus behind what it has said is its goal: ensuring this redevelopment is a seamless extension of the city.
The redevelopment plan reflects a great deal of public input that began almost a year ago, and there is much here to praise, most notably the planned extension of the city’s historic street grid, major new parks along the Cooper River and from the historic Bennett Rice Mill facade to the river, as well as new drainage infrastructure that would help reduce flooding in adjacent neighborhoods.
Indeed, the promise of these benefits should motivate everyone to do what they can to ensure that a redevelopment plan is approved and successfully executed in the years to come.
But as the city approval process moves ahead, many believe that the proposed development remains too dense and its buildings would be too tall. And that it would not have enough affordable housing on-site. And that it would have too many hotel rooms. And that even its planned open space, as exciting as it is, should be greater.
Those are serious concerns.
The plan’s prospects may be dimming in part because the approval process comes amid a major municipal election, one being held in a time of prosperity that also has created a growing public backlash against new development in general.
Its prospects also may be fading because the Ports Authority has created the impression that Charleston might get taller, denser and less affordable development not only because that would be necessary to create the kind of property tax base that would help pay for most of the massive new infrastructure such as parks, streets and drainage, but also because the Ports Authority is looking to sell the 64 acres for as much as possible to finance future expansion of the Leatherman terminal 5 miles to the north. As former City Councilman Foster Gaillard recently put it in a commentary on our pages, “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.”
Some have called on the city to do more, but it doesn’t hold the cards here. Yes, City Council could defer or even reject the application, but such an outcome would carry its own significant risk: The site could remain in its current state, or the Ports Authority could reconsider redeveloping it and instead find a new port use, perhaps as an export site for Scout vehicles.
The Ports Authority should expect some profit from Union Pier’s redevelopment, but we urge the agency to be transparent about the extent of that profit and how the intensity of a rebuilt Union Pier would contribute to it. A generation ago, the city agreed to support Union Pier’s redevelopment by giving up its rights to reacquire former city property if it no longer was being used as a port. That good-faith gesture reflected the city’s vision of itself as a partner with the Ports Authority in writing a new chapter for this historic waterfront site. Today, the best way to ensure that new chapter is written soon would be for the Ports Authority to make a similar gesture of its own.