June 20, 2023

Barbara Melvin has a simple request for everyone who’s interested in what gets built on Union Pier.

“Stay engaged,” the S.C. State Ports Authority president and CEO says. “Don’t think the hard work is done. The hard work is just beginning.”

That’s great advice, because it’s exactly what everyone in Charleston needs to do.

Last week, Melvin and the Ports Authority board announced they were pulling their original plans and pressing pause on the redevelopment of Union Pier — a 64-acre piece of waterfront land in the heart of downtown Charleston that Melvin justifiably calls the most attractive property on the East Coast.

It was a savvy move by the port, and the right one.

Of course, the usual suspects — neighborhood groups, preservationists, conservationists — all celebrated. They had complained for months that the process was moving too fast, that they hadn’t had enough input and they got their victory.

Sort of.

Because it will be a short-lived win if the interested parties kick back and relax during this decidedly temporary reprieve. Union Pier will be back next spring — bet on it.

See, what’s actually happened here is the pressure has shifted from the port to its critics. They now have to step up and offer constructive input, and work with the Joe Riley Center for Livable Communities at the College of Charleston, which the port asked to lead the process for creating a new Union Pier plan.

By definition, that means offering specifics about what people really want, within reason, for the most important development Charleston has seen in at least a century.

When the port’s plan for Union Pier was unveiled, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said it was too tall, too dense and needed fewer hotel rooms and more affordable housing. And it shouldn’t just be about the port making money.

All those groups against the plan more or less adopted that as their mantra. Trouble is, they never said what they would accept … or at least not protest.

That’s got to change, because now the port has made a civic-minded gesture. And with a new, very public, nearly year-long process in place, the “this is moving too fast” argument will no longer fly.

Melvin doesn’t think it will come to that. She says when port officials sat down with various concerned groups, there was never a point where any of them said no development was acceptable.

Good call. Everybody has to understand the property is too valuable to turn into Charleston’s version of Central Park, although a scaled-down version of that could be a part of it. Realistically, there’s going to be some development. Probably more than a lot of people want.

But what that looks like is what everyone needs to focus on. In fact, the port’s counting on it.

Melvin says she talked with the mayor after that recent planning commission meeting, when hundreds of people showed up to lodge their complaints, and all that led to this reset.

Because those folks were saying basically the same thing the port had heard from the city.

“The mayor and city staff told us they didn’t want to review someone else’s work, they wanted to be a part of it,” Melvin tells me. “We really took it in.”

She says it only took some conversations with SPA board members to change course. And yeah, they probably also realized the Union Pier plan as it stood didn’t have the votes to make it through the Planning Commission or City Council.

Still, instead of trying to ram it through, the port signed off on the city’s proposal for a new timeline and public planning process. In the coming months, city staff is going to develop the outline for a “waterfront district” — with specific instructions on waterfront parks, a public space centered around the Rice Mill façade with a memorial to the Mosquito Fleet, as well as provisions for the mixed-use residential and commercial elements the port originally proposed.

The port agreed to that plan, basically opting for the high road. Now it’s time for their critics to do the same.

That doesn’t mean automatically accepting anything; it simply means that the days of going all Nancy Reagan and just saying “no” are over. You want greater public waterfront access? Sure thing. More public space? Certainly.

But with great amenities come some trade-offs. There will be commercial buildings on Union Pier. Folks can grouse about it … or they can have a say in how those buildings look, their mass and scale.

“We want a great project — a legacy project that we are all proud to have,” Melvin says. “We don’t want people to squander this opportunity.”

And there’s some more very good advice.