Contentious development plans for South Carolina Ports Authority’s nearly 70-acre waterfront property in downtown Charleston are going back to the drawing board for at least a year, this time under the stewardship of The Joseph P. Riley Jr. Center for Livable Communities at the College of Charleston.
The Ports announcement came roughly a week after more than 250 residents and representatives from non-profits and advocacy groups packed a City Planning Commission meeting to oppose the Planned Unit Development proposal by real estate company Lowe that would have created a waterfront park and allowed for two dozen mixed-used residential and commercial buildings on the site, some that could have been built up to seven stories tall.
Citizens expressed concerns about the height, architectural design, the number of hotels that would be built, the density of the development, parking and traffic flow concerns and lack of green space for the public to enjoy, among other points.
“People shared what they want to see at Union Pier — and just as important — what they do not want to see,” said Barbara Melvin, CEO of the Ports, at a news conference on June 16. “The difference now is the timing and the process.”
The new plan is to work with independent third-party consultant The Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Center for Livable Communities to guide and vet design plans as well as create the city’s first “Waterfront District” that would be added to the city’s overall comprehensive plan to guide development. The Port hopes to present new design and development plan for the site by July 2024.
Melvin said The National Trust for Historic Preservation will also be engaged in the process along with the city, members of the community and stakeholders. There will be a coastal resiliency compatibility study to outline flood mitigation measures as well as a robust parks and recreation programming plan for the site.
“We listened to the community and with this new process, we believe we will have a new plan that we can all embrace,” Melvin said.
The current site is mostly abandoned warehouses and other industrial buildings. The Ports Authority is planning to sell the land, which is located between the Customs House and the Ansonborough neighborhood, after deciding not to renew Carnival Cruise Line’s home port contract.
Before putting the property up for sale, the Ports Authority was seeking to attach a planned unit development, a type of master plan that would guide development for whichever developer purchases the land.
Public meetings and citizen workshops about the development were held starting last summer, including four public engagement sessions with hundreds of residents before the first city meeting in December. In January, Lowe submitted a nearly 400-page document to city staff outlining stipulations and requirements for the planned unit development, followed by revised versions submitted in the spring.
The Ports still intends to continue the process for attaching a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) and Municipal Improvement District (MID) on the property, in which the future developer would front infrastructure costs in lieu of city and county tax payments until the site is built out and collect payments from the site’s property owners for continued maintenance on the property. The Ports expects a proposed ordinance to be introduced for both the TIF and MID by January 2024.
City leaders and advocacy groups hailed the port’s decision to hit pause on the development process until more input is considered.
“We stand ready to work alongside the community, city, and State Ports Authority to determine a future for Union Pier that aligns with the needs of our citizens and the character of our world-renowned, historic city,” said Winslow Hastie, president and CEO of Historic Charleston Foundation.
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg added, “This agreement is a huge win for everyone who loves Charleston. 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.”