By Emma Whalen, Post & Courier, May 18, 2023 – In a rare move, port officials may try to advance the Union Pier redevelopment proposal to a vote from the Charleston Planning Commission without a stamp of approval from a city review committee that typically gives their OK first.

The 64-acre Union Pier parcel is owned by the State Ports Authority. The SPA hired real estate development firm Lowe to draw up a zoning document that would dictate how the downtown Charleston site could be redeveloped when the port sells the property.

The Technical Review Committee, which reviews the finer points of a proposal such as storm water management and parking requirements, asked the port to revise their zoning document May 18 and return before the committee to show their revisions. But that may not happen.

“This is a very critical new neighborhood and we have to get it right,” said TRC member Eric Schultz.

The document making its way through the city approval process, known as a planned unit development, allows for 1,600 residential units, 600 hotel rooms, and over 500,000 square feet of retail and office space. Height limits for buildings range from two-and-a-half stories at the waterfront to seven stories at the center of the property.

Because the port already requested review from the planning commission and has a meeting with them scheduled for June 7, the development team will likely not bring the proposal to TRC again.

“SC Ports is following the city’s rigorous review process,” a statement from the port reads. “This is the Technical Review Committee’s second review of the PUD. The staff provided thoughtful, substantive comments and we greatly appreciate their expertise. We are working diligently to incorporate many of these comments into the submittal prior to the Planning Commission’s June 7 public hearing.”

The proposal went before the TRC for the first time March 2. The revision and scheduling process took months, resulting in a second TRC review May 18. Now, that same process would have to play out in a matter of three weeks to be complete in time for the Planning Commission review June 7.

The Technical Review Committee serves to advise developers about what roadblocks they may encounter in future city approval processes. Some revisions suggested by the TRC relate to mandatory code requirements such as compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act or the city’s fire safety code. Other suggestions from the TRC come from city staff who relay different departments’ preferences. That could include the number of hotel rooms allowed on a property or the location of park space.

While some suggestions have been heeded by the port, such as expanding the park space around the Bennett Rice Mill façade, others were rejected or deferred. Some responses recorded by the port said more detail would be available during the later stages of the process.

One of the suggestions from the city included scaling back the number of hotel rooms allowed on the property from 600 to 300. That suggestion was not incorporated in the updated plan.

Another suggestion advised adding a turn lane at some intersections and expanding the traffic study to examine the possibility of increasing the number of lanes on Washington Street beyond one lane in each direction.

Although the TRC can approve a proposal with some minor suggestions unmet, this time around the body determined that the remaining suggestions are too complex for the TRC to give their OK.

This process is playing out amid a frenzy of advocacy from local groups such as the Coastal Conservation League, the Preservation Society of Charleston and the Historic Charleston Foundation, all of which are seeking to slow the planning effort down. The three groups planned a series of events aimed at educating the public about how to influence the plan on May 11, 16 and 18.

Recently, the groups successfully advocated for the National Trust for Historic Preservation to include the historic neighborhoods around Union Pier on its annual list of “endangered places.”

When the plan reaches planning commission, that body can deny the proposal, advance it to city council with conditions or advance it to city council as is. City Council also has the authority to attach conditions to the development proposal before approving it. City Council can defer a proposal for up to one year, after which it is automatically denied if a vote is not taken.