By City Paper Editorial Board, May 12, 2023 – More residents and businesses are venting how the mammoth proposed Union Pier project should be taken off the fast track set by the S.C. State Ports Authority and developer Lowe. So maybe it’s time for something even better: Just stop the project and return the 64 acres of land to the previous owner that essentially gave it to S.C. Ports for free — the city of Charleston.
S.C. Ports had big plans in the 1990s to do something with the land. Promises were made and nothing happened. Almost 30 years passed and now it wants to cash in, much to the abhorrence of many people who live and work nearby.
The city of Charleston gave the land to the port in 1947 to be used for port and shipping purposes. But an agreement wisely included a reverter clause to allow the city to reclaim the land if Union Pier was not being used for port operations — just what is happening 76 years later.
In 1994, however, the city traded away the reverter right on the Union Pier property to get control of a smaller piece of adjacent land on which the passenger terminal and a couple of other buildings are located. At the time, a review of council records shows the city, still recovering from the impact of Hurricane Hugo, believed the swap was fair as the city would “maintain forever the rights to that [passenger terminal] vista out into the harbor.”
While that was then seen as important, city fathers also may have been blinded by the lure of future tax revenues that would accrue after someone else developed Union Pier’s 64 acres. Elected leaders apparently didn’t realize they’d get property tax revenues anyway if they just kept the land and managed its development!
At the time, a lawyer for the city told council’s real estate committee that Union Pier would “have extraordinary tax value” in five years. The committee’s March 8, 1994, minutes summarized Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr.: “The Mayor said that certainly to get the area redeveloped and on the tax books was extraordinary.”
But the assumption of “extraordinary tax value” was only if Union Pier were developed as envisioned then — within a few years. But year after year, nothing happened. Today, the city’s former land at Union Pier has soared in value, much of which will go to the Ports and developers if things stay the same. While the city will eventually benefit from property taxes as envisioned in 1994, that rotten reverter deal puts the city in the passenger seat, not the driver’s.
Perhaps it’s time for somebody to look at whether the 1994 deal can be challenged legally because the current Union Pier plan — something we’ve described as putting lipstick on a pig — is not in the best interest of the people of Charleston.
Let’s entrust Union Pier to the city to prepare its future use in responsible ways that are more in keeping with adjacent neighborhoods dotted with corner stores and Charleston single houses, instead of a score of massive buildings that will look like a cruise ship perched atop Union Pier’s acres.
We only have one shot at this. Let’s not screw it up by letting someone else do what the city should oversee on behalf of the people.