The S.C. State Ports Authority and its real estate consultant Lowe soon will launch the state agency’s third attempt in a generation to redevelop Union Pier, a largely underused, 70-acre site whose strategic location along the Cooper River offers an extraordinary opportunity to change Charleston for the better or worse. We fear this new opportunity will be squandered, however, if the Ports Authority and the city don’t begin by agreeing on the future of cruise ships here.
Lowe, a Los Angeles-based company that offers real estate services nationwide and is building a hotel on the SPA’s former downtown office site, has indicated its interest in acquiring the property. But a Ports Authority spokeswoman told reporter David Wren that Lowe’s first job is to line up the entitlements — all the necessary zoning permissions — to redevelop the property, after which the agency would seek bids from interested buyers and ultimately award the site to the “highest and best use.” The agency must stick to that plan.
But there must be more to the plan, including a fresh public review of the future presence of cruise ships in Charleston Harbor. Without clarity over whether the northeastern edge of Union Pier one day might be home to a new passenger cruise ship terminal that the Ports Authority has been fighting for in court without resolution for more than a decade, we’re concerned that any Union Pier redevelopment planning would be largely a waste of time.
That’s partly because Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg has said that getting cruise ships off the peninsula is “just common sense.” Indeed, Charleston’s history is full of examples of uses that grew and gradually moved northward or off the peninsula entirely, such as military installations, landfills, car dealerships, container terminals and railroad depots.
The Ports Authority has withheld a parcel at the northeastern corner of the Union Pier site for a new terminal, but we believe that land should be included in Lowe’s work; its future use needs to be determined because it is fundamental to coming up with a plan for the highest and best use of the rest of the neighboring property.
As we’ve noted before, cooperation between the city and state led to the creation of the State Ports Authority in the early 20th century, and its success has been crucial to South Carolina’s modern economy. But the state’s economy also thrives on tourism, and the dramatic success of historic Charleston is one of the leading drivers of that. This success was brought about partly by aggressively regulating many aspects of tourism under the correct belief that Charleston is an attractive place to visit foremost because it is an attractive place to live.
The cruise ship debate is complex and includes issues other than where to build a new passenger terminal, namely whether the SPA should agree to penalties if it were to exceed its voluntary caps of no more than one cruise ship docking at a time, no more than 104 visits a year and no ships above a certain size; whether cruise ship passengers are taxed enough to help support the city; and what else should be done to reduce cruise ship emissions while in port. It’s past time for a renewed attempt to resolve this ongoing standoff.
The Union Pier redevelopment promises to be challenging for many reasons: A new storm surge barrier being considered for the peninsula would likely cut through it, change its current landscape and have significant repercussions for the site’s street grid and office, commercial and residential buildings. Also, the Ports Authority and city must strike a balance that will determine Union Pier’s “highest and best use,” one that would bring a respectable financial return for state taxpayers and enrich the city as well.
Add in the ongoing uncertainty over cruise ships, and it’s hard to envision a successful outcome.
During the time when our cruise ship debate has dragged ever so slowly through the courts, the Italian government has banned large cruise ships from passing through the center of Venice, acknowledging an international outcry over how ever-larger liners were damaging that fragile city. It was a bold and historic step. Charleston deserves no less.