June 16, 2023

When the State Ports Authority launched its new planning effort last year to redevelop Union Pier, SPA President and CEO Barbara Melvin said the agency was committed to a project driven not by its needs but by Charleston’s. Friday’s announcement that the city and the Ports Authority have agreed to a needed year-long pause gives credence to her words and offers fresh hope that the 70-acre industrial site can eventually become a vital and cohesive extension of the historic city.

Without such a pause — which the editorial staff, Charleston advocacy groups and hundreds of residents called for — the ambitious redevelopment looked as if it would have foundered trying to win approval from a mayor and City Council members who understand this is a municipal election year and many voters are weary of the city’s rapid changes.

Importantly, Friday’s announcement included much more than everyone agreeing to take a timeout. The city and Ports Authority reaffirmed their shared goal of redeveloping the site and outlined seven steps each would take to help make it happen. The Ports Authority will engage the Riley Center for Livable Communities at the College of Charleston for an independent, third-party analysis of and recommendations for the planned unit development and comprehensive plan amendment at Union Pier. And the city will engage the National Trust for Historic Preservation for the same purpose. The National Trust indicated it was willing to help with an “ideas lab” approach that has helped other cities. We are optimistic it will help here too.

These independent reviews should focus on the complex tradeoffs involved and ultimately paint a clearer picture of how Union Pier’s redevelopment would benefit the state, the city and the private sector. To that end, it’s encouraging that Friday’s announcement included a commitment toward clarifying — by no later than January — how much property tax revenue the city, Charleston County and the Charleston County School District will be asked to forgo. As envisioned, all three governments would be asked to defer new property tax revenue from the redevelopment so that money instead could help pay for the new parks, drainage systems and street grid, but there have been no details so far. Without those details, there can be no confidence that the redevelopment plan will actually work.

Meanwhile, we don’t disagree with the Ports Authority’s aim to use proceeds from future land sales at Union Pier to help defer the future costs of expanding the Hugh Leatherman Terminal, but the redevelopment’s overarching goal must not be maximizing a return to the Ports Authority but creating a beautiful, functional, accessible, desired extension of historic Charleston. It could be a tricky needle to thread.

The pause also will help spur thinking about Union Pier’s role as a neighbor to the new International African American Museum that opens this month. As Faith Rivers James of the Coastal Conservation League said during a recent forum, the redevelopment and museum will be linked in a sense. “Going through that museum will be a challenge, but if we’re going to commemorate the history, let’s not just have people commemorate centuries of history and pain and sacrifice and strength and victory and then go to a coffee shop,” she said. “Why not leave some space to think about what just transpired there? So look at that Rice Mill and think not only about the sacrifice of the slaves who produced that rice but also the ingenuity of the entrepreneurs who worked at that site to get rice out to the rest of the world. That’s a part of what made Charleston Charleston.”

Now that they have the pause and commitment to additional planning that so many have asked for, it’s important for Charleston residents and leaders to help ensure the Union Pier project is compatible with the historic city while keeping in mind the vast potential benefits it offers.

Let’s find a way together to make this work.