Photo credit: Charleston Post & Courier, State Ports Authority
The S.C. State Ports Authority and its consultant for redeveloping Union Pier deserve credit for realizing their plan needs a strong element of affordable housing, and the goal of creating 310 new units on the peninsula is both creative and ambitious. But we still urge them to build more affordable units on the former port site rather than scattering them around downtown.
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg also has called for more affordable housing on site, as did almost everyone else who spoke during a recent Planning Commission session focusing on Union Pier’s affordable housing component, reporter Emma Whalen noted. Ensuring the new development includes a mix of housing types and incomes ultimately will help the plan accomplish what its backers say is their overall goal: to make this redevelopment truly an extension of Charleston.
The affordable housing component, as consultant Lowe outlined during the Planning Commission session, includes 50 residential units on Union Pier itself, where rents would be affordable for at least 30 years to those making between 60% and 120% of the area’s median income. The Ports Authority also would give $16 million to the Charleston Housing Authority to add 77 units to a new affordable housing complex planned at Huger and Meeting streets. It would donate a state-owned property at the southeastern corner of Chapel and East Bay streets for an affordable housing development of up to 85 units. Its most unconventional move would be adding a permanent 1% transfer fee to all future property sales on Union Pier and sending the proceeds to the city for future affordable housing projects.
That fee could provide significant revenue to the city going forward and is a novel, welcome step. And while the commitments to efforts elsewhere on the peninsula also would help in the big picture, they won’t make Union Pier a more vibrant, inclusive, welcoming place.
Charleston has shown repeatedly that affordable housing can be done in a way that complements the historic city, from the award-winning, scattered-site public housing built across the middle peninsula in the 1980s to the more recent Williams Terrace, a handsome apartment building just north of the Union Pier site.
More affordable units on the site will create needed housing for those filling the many new jobs expected to be created by Union Pier’s commercial component, such as its new restaurants, offices and shops. The more of those workers who can walk to work, the less the development will add to traffic congestion; perhaps even the buildings could be a bit smaller since fewer would need to own or store cars. The number of affordable units on site should at least double, to 100, and we’d like to see at least half with affordability as a permanent feature.
From an economic point of view, calls to add more affordable housing to the Union Pier site conflict with calls to lower the maximum height of its buildings and to reduce its density, and the amount of affordable housing on site ultimately could affect the property’s sales price and the amount of money the Ports Authority pockets from the deal. That’s yet another reason we need to see the financial details. Those specifics need to be made public soon, well before the Planning Commission holds its formal public hearing on June 7.
Only after we have a clearer sense of the cost of the infrastructure — including planned parks, stormwater upgrades, streets and, yes, more affordable on-site housing — and how all this will be paid for will we be able to have a full debate over the tradeoffs necessary to make this redevelopment a welcome extension of our city.