By Emma Whalen, Post & Courier, May 10, 2023 – The looming redevelopment of Charleston’s cruise ship hub, Union Pier, landed the area surrounding the property on a list of “11 Most Endangered Historic Places” in the United States.
The 64-acre port-owned property is currently the subject of a proposed overhaul that is making its way through the city approval process.
The Preservation Society of Charleston, the Historic Charleston Foundation and the Coastal Conservation League banded together to advocate that the National Trust for Historic Preservation list Union Pier on its annual endangered places list, which was released May 9.
The Trust listed the site’s history as a port and trade center, a fixture in the slave trade and later a base for Black fisherman known collectively as the Mosquito Fleet, as reasons the property needs to preserved in a way that acknowledges its history. If the site is not developed in a culturally sensitive way, it will tarnish the historic value of the surrounding neighborhoods, the trust argues.
Port officials said current proposal for the site take those factors into account.
“The Bennett Rice Mill Façade will be incorporated as the centerpiece of a beautiful promenade to Charleston’s waterfront. The historic Mosquito Fleet will be honored with more opportunities for fishing. The historic waterfront will be knitted together with public walking paths and parks that connect cultural assets in downtown Charleston,” a statement from the State Ports Authority reads.
Although the port held its own public input process throughout the fall, local advocates expressed concern that the zoning document for the property that the port has proposed, called a planned unit development, did not incorporate enough of the public’s feedback. The groups hope that a process led by local advocacy groups will result in a more historically sensitive plan with increased parks space and a revised stormwater management strategy.
“Advocates believe that a more robust, inclusive community visioning process is critical,” the National Trust’s endangered places announcement reads.
The three organizations had long advocated for the halt of cruise ship operations from the downtown site. Beginning in 2025, cruises will only make port-of-call stops in Charleston rather than start and end their voyages at Union Pier. Because this will free up most of the site for other uses, the port hopes to sell the property to a developer by the end of the year and use the profits from the sale to maintain and expand the Leatherman Terminal in North Charleston.
The proposed zoning document 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 2½ stories at the waterfront to seven stories at the center of the property.
“The current developer-led plan proposes building sizes and density that are not remotely compatible with Charleston’s historic built environment,” a statement from the three advocacy groups read.
The three advocacy groups plan to host meetings to collect feedback on the proposal in the coming weeks.
“We invite the entire community concerned about the Union Pier proposal to participate and learn more,” a statement from the Preservation Society reads. Meeting information notes that RSVPs are required and space is limited.
The city process
As local advocacy groups are arranging meetings, the zoning document is currently making its way through the city’s approval process. The next step will be the second review from the city’s Technical Review Committee on May 18. It will then head to the Planning Commission.
The Planning Commission previously held information sessions for the public on topics including stormwater management, urban design and affordable housing. No action was taken at those meetings.
When the commission does take a vote on the proposal, those leaders can attach conditions to the zoning document before allowing it to advance to City Council.
As of now, the Planning Commission is tentatively set to host a public hearing on the proposal June 7. On the same day, the commission may vote on whether to advance the proposal to City Council. City ordinance states they have 30 days after the public hearing to hold a vote on the proposal. If they do not, it automatically moves to City Council without revision.
When it reaches City Council, the item can remain on the agenda for up to a year. If it is not acted on within one year, it is automatically denied.
Editor’s note: This post was updated to clarify that the National Trust for Historic Preservation labeled the historic neighborhoods surrounding Union Pier as endangered.