By Emma Whalen, Post & Courier
May 5, 2023 – Leaders from the State Ports Authority have indicated that they hope to sell Union Pier, their 64-acre downtown Charleston property, by the end of the year.
By far the largest redevelopment opportunity left on the lower peninsula, some local advocates and residents feel this deadline has forced the massive zoning proposal to barrel toward the finish line. The document, if approved by the city, will dictate how a developer can and cannot build out the site.
The next three months will serve as a crucial test of the ability of Charleston municipal officials to successfully place guardrails on the development without squashing it altogether.
Points of contention
When port officials submitted their zoning proposal for Union Pier to the city earlier this year, staff from the Planning Department offered a slew of suggested revisions. Some, but not all, of those have been taken into account.
Among the biggest proposed changes is a larger public park focused on the historic Bennett Rice Mill façade that includes a quarter-mile promenade with open views to the waterfront. Stretching across the Union Pier property to Charleston Harbor, the park would be slightly larger than the existing Wragg Mall Park between Meeting and Elizabeth streets. Where it reaches the waterfront, it would tie in with a walkway along the harbor.
The revised plan attempts to address density concerns by moving the tallest buildings — up to seven stories — to the property’s interior, hiding them from full view and giving Union Pier a varied skyline.
Leaders of some groups such as the Preservation Society of Charleston have said the revised proposal does not go far enough to address height concerns.
The property’s zoning document, called a planned unit development, will also require developers to follow guidelines that exceed the city’s Board of Architectural Review recommendations, from the use of sloped roofs to incorporating historical assets into the design.
Some key points that have not been hashed out yet are the city’s suggestion to reduce the total number of hotel rooms allowed on site from 600 to 300 and to increase the total number of affordable housing units on site.
The current proposal still calls for a maximum of 600 hotel rooms, although those would be split among four locations on the property with no location exceeding 250 rooms.
Barbara Melvin, CEO of the SPA, told the Post and Courier that the plan is still subject to change.
“It will evolve again throughout this process as we continue to listen,” she said.
The affordable housing section has been taken out of the document altogether and listed as “reserved for further coordination.”
At a recent information session, dozens of public speakers and city leaders called on the port to add more affordable housing units on the site.
The original proposal called for 50 out of the 1,600 residential units to be set aside as affordable. That was in addition to creating a permanent fund for affordable housing from a fee on real estate transactions on the site, providing nearby port-owned land to the city to develop additional affordable housing and giving funding to the Charleston Housing Authority to complete an affordable housing project that is already getting underway.
“We are still digesting what we’ve heard there. But the very common theme was more affordable units on the Union Pier redevelopment site itself,” Melvin said.
When the proposal reaches the city’s Planning Commission and then the City Council, both of those bodies have the ability to attach conditions to the plan in exchange for approving it. That is when the city’s ability to use its leverage will be on full display, City Planning Director Robert Summerfield said.
“City Council has full discretion to approve the original application, to approve the application with the Planning Commission’s recommendations, modify the recommendations, add to them or deny the application altogether,” he said.
Jacob Lindsey, the project manager for Lowe, the private real estate firm hired to design the site plan prior to the sale, said at a March event that while the team is open to feedback, scaling the project back too much could mean that it will no longer be economically viable for a developer to take on and turn a profit.
Union Pier could sell for as much as $400 million, some real estate analysts say.
The zoning proposal for the property will go for its second review before Charleston’s Technical Advisory Committee on May 18.
Summerfield said the Technical Advisory Committee is not typically the city’s mechanism for applying leverage to proposed developments. The board’s main function is to ensure a proposal meets the city’s code requirements for design aspects such as storm water management and parking.
When the proposal reaches the city’s Planning Commission, those leaders can attach more conditions before allowing it to advance to City Council. That may be when port officials take more of the city’s earlier comments into account, Summerfield said.
“Almost everything gets approved with conditions,” he said. “They can be relatively minor or significant.”
As of now, the Planning Commission is tentatively set to host a public hearing on the proposal June 7, Summerfield said. 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.
That timeline is part of the reason Summerfield said residents have felt concerned that the proposal is moving forward too quickly. But when it reaches City Council, the item can remain on their agenda for up to a year. If it is not acted on within one year, it is automatically denied.