June 16, 2023

After facing months of opposition, the South Carolina Ports Authority now says it will take more time — possibly a year — to review and likely overhaul its plan to redevelop Union Pier, its cruise ship hub in historic downtown Charleston.

On June 16, port officials said they will work with the Joe Riley Center for Livable Communities at the College of Charleston to create the new plan for Union Pier, taking that responsibility away from real estate development firm Lowe.

The decision marks a sharp departure from the port’s strategy for redeveloping the site until now. For the past year, they worked with Lowe to draw up a development plan known as a Planned Unit Development, or PUD, for the property. They were working quickly to get various city approvals so they could sell the property by the end of 2023. Now, the port plans to sell the 64-acre property along the Cooper River by the end of 2024.

“It remains our shared goal to transform Union Pier into a beautiful neighborhood that blends with the city and offers significant public assets for Charlestonians. We now have a new agreement that puts the city and community at the forefront of the planning process,” said Barbara Melvin, president and CEO of the Ports Authority. “We listened to the community, and with this new process, we believe we will have a new plan that we can all embrace.”

When asked why the Ports Authority was willing to pivot on its original timeline, Melvin said the end result will be better.

“We think value is created by more community engagement and city engagement,” Melvin said. “This is going to create a lot of value for the port and the city.”

The deal with Lowe had raised eyebrows from the start. Since last year, the developer was paid about $50,000 a month to come up with a design plan for Union Pier ahead of its sale. The deal also gave Lowe a right of first refusal to match any offers from other potential buyers once the property hit the market. If Lowe did not match the winning offer, Lowe would have been paid 9.5 percent of the final price that someone else paid as an “incentive fee” on top of its monthly payment for getting the property ready for sale.

Though its role will be changing, Dan Battista, head of Lowe’s Charleston regional office, said the company is still committed to the “shared vision of a vibrant new neighborhood” at the site.

“With a more-than 30-year history in the Lowcountry, Lowe supports the collaborative planning and development of Union Pier,” Battista said.

Mayor John Tecklenburg celebrated the decision to take the planning process in a new direction.

“This agreement is a huge win for everyone who loves Charleston,” he said. “I want to thank the port for listening when our residents spoke, and our residents for speaking so clearly. Now, let’s get to work and make sure that this is the kind of project our whole city can be proud of.”

South Carolina Ports President Barbara Melvin joined by Mayor John Tecklenburg discusses the future of the Union Pier project at the SC Ports Passenger Terminal in Charleston on Friday, June 16, 2023. Laura Bilson/Staff.

New timeline
Two major critiques of the current planning process centered on the lack of city involvement in what should and should not be allowed on the waterfront site. When Charleston last adopted a comprehensive plan for the city in 2021, the 10-year land-use plan labeled the Union Pier site as a “future planning area.” Advocates who spoke against the Union Pier proposal said the city should update its comprehensive plan to include more specific guidelines for the property before approving any development plans.

They also said the site also should be analyzed by the same team that Charleston is currently paying to draw up a comprehensive water plan for the city. That plan dictates how land should be used to best limit flooding and how future stormwater management projects should be approached.

Another gray area of the plan was the proposed public financing portion. The Ports Authority proposed creating two special taxing districts called a Tax Increment Finance, or TIF, district and a Municipal Improvement District, or MID. Both would put public funds towards infrastructure improvements on the site such as roadwork and stormwater management plans. But the details of such proposals were only made public last week, leaving little time for review by the public and the governing bodies responsible for approving the proposals.

Port and city officials took those and other concerns, including those from the local advocacy groups, into account and laid out the following timeline, which is subject to change:

June 2023: Ports Authority requests Planning Commission defer its decision on Union Pier.

June 2023-March 2024: Ports Authority and city officials will proceed with the Comprehensive Plan amendment process and use community feedback to adopt an amendment that creates a “Waterfront District” label for the Union Pier site.

January-March 2024: City will work to complete a coastal resiliency compatibility study for the Union Pier site with other flood mitigation measures.

January-March 2024: Ports Authority and city officials continue the process for adoption of the TIF/MID ordinance.

April-June 2024: Ports Authority and city officials will develop a park/recreation programming plan with community input for the district.

April-July 2024: Ports Authority and city proceed through the Planning Commission and City Council review, with the goal of adopting by July 2024 a new designation for the Future Land Use for the Union Pier property, revised PUD and any relevant zoning amendments. Depending on the extent of changes to any pending applications, the deferred applications may require another hearing prior to any Planning Commission action.

A coalition of local advocacy groups including the Historic Charleston Foundation, the Preservation Society of Charleston and the Coastal Conservation League praised the new process.

“We are optimistic that this shift is a good faith effort that will result in a civic-minded plan that puts community values first,” said Brian Turner, president and CEO of the Preservation Society of Charleston.

The new process also drew support from the Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce.

How we got here
Residents and members of local advocacy groups have spent months pleading with the Ports Authority to slow down its planning process for the redevelopment of Union Pier.

Port officials initially said that because they planned to sell the property by the end of the year, they needed to get a Planned Unit Development designation approved by the city as soon as possible. Proceeds of the sale are expected to fund ongoing work on expanding the Leatherman port terminal in North Charleston as well as other capital improvements under the port’s purview.

The PUD would have set the standard for what can and cannot be built on the site, including park space, affordable housing and hotel use. It would also determine height limits for buildings and design guidelines a future developer would have to follow.

The Ports Authority solicited ideas from the public beginning in August, two months after announcing it would transition away from using the Union Pier property for homeport cruises. But when a design plan was revealed at the beginning of the year, several groups criticized the lack of features that had been requested from the public.

Since then, the proposal has been altered multiple times, but its overall design did not changed substantially.

Over the last several weeks, local advocates have rushed to parse through and communicate their opinions on the nearly 400-page planning document. The most recent version was made available two weeks ago, shortly before the Planning Commission was scheduled to review it.

The updated proposal called for 500,000 square feet of retail and office space, 1,600 residential units and buildings no taller than seven stories.

Packed room at the June 7 Planning Commission Meeting

It reached the Planning Commission June 7 despite the fact that city staff had requested more changes earlier in the review process that had gone unaddressed. Nearly 500 people submitted online comments about the proposal ahead of the meeting, and nearly 100 more spoke about it in person. Many opposed the plan in its current form.

Preservation groups such as the Preservation Society of Charleston and the Historic Charleston Foundation were critical of the scale of the development saying that the seven-story height limits were too high for the historic area and that the design standards were not strict enough to keep future development in check with the city’s overall look and feel. Leaders with the Coastal Conservation League, which teamed up with the preservation groups to oppose the project, said the stormwater management plans were not binding enough to ensure that the property would not have negative affects on flooding in the surrounding area. Because the property is in the 100-year floodplain, the proposal called for bringing in fill dirt to elevate it.

A main sticking point from city staff in the original proposal was the number of onsite hotel rooms, which the plan called for 600. Staff called for that to be reduced to 300 rooms, with no individual hotel exceeding 150. The most recent plan took the room limit out of the document altogether.

The city was successful in getting port officials to alter requirements for affordable housing in the plan. What started as a requirement of 50 affordable units out of 1,600 residences increased to 290 units. The plan defines affordable as attainable for those earning up to 120 percent of the city’s median family income. It also requires investments in affordable housing nearby and a real estate transaction fee that would create a permanent source of revenue for affordable housing efforts throughout the city. The 290 units built on site could be reduced down to 10 percent of total residences via a credit system based on paying for additional affordable housing off site.

The Planning Commission delayed taking a vote on the proposal for one month, saying it needed more time to review the document as well as the opposition to it.

A week later, the port decided to start over with a blank slate.