Project

Redevelopment of Union Pier


Background:

Union Pier is a 70-acre waterfront site on the east side of Charleston’s historic district between Market and Laurens Streets downtown that has been used for maritime shipping and port operations since Charles Towne’s founding in 1670. The current owners of the site, the South Carolina Ports Authority (SCPA), have been using Union Pier as a terminal for cargo shipping and pleasure cruise operations for decades, during which time the Conservation League has been involved in community outreach and collaborative efforts with partner groups to get regulations in place to address ongoing quality of life issues and environmental concerns around discharge and pollutants associated with large cruise ships. 

In May 2022, the SCPA announced plans to transition away from home port cruising. When their lease with Carnival ends in 2024, the SCPA will pivot towards abbreviated port-of-call stays rather than hosting cruising vessels at Union Pier like it has been doing for the past decade. SCPA will maintain ownership of the cruise terminal located at the southern end of the property, but are working on redevelopment plans to transform the vast remaining vacant area into a mixed-use neighborhood with public waterfront access for the first time in Charleston’s history.

The Proposed Redevelopment: 

The proposed future of Union Pier promises a redevelopment plan that will connect the community to waterfront spaces that have been blocked off from the public realm for centuries. This project presents a once in a lifetime opportunity to create a new neighborhood on the edge of the existing historic urban grid in a way that improves quality of life by enhancing drainage and mobility and creating a resilient community that is a thoughtful public destination with focused access on the waterfront. The success of improved mobility, extension of the historic urban grid, creation of new public greenspaces, incorporation of cruise operations, and solutions for water management are hinging on specific details regarding logistics, implementation and buildout of the new 25 city blocks. The draft renderings presented initially set the stage for potential development of an innovative space that will benefit the city and its residents, but more details are needed to ensure the promising vision set forth by the project team will translate to reality upon buildout of the site.

The Coastal Conservation League’s Involvement: 

When the cruise debate first began in 2011, the Conservation League engaged the Dover Kohl & Partners team of town planners to do a feasibility study showing the potential for Union Pier to become a resilient, mixed-use community instead of exclusively functioning as a cruise terminal and parking lot. We knew then, and we know now, that it’s possible. However, robust public engagement is needed to ensure the redevelopment of Union Pier supports the vision and needs of Charleston residents.

The Conservation League sees critical opportunities for improvements, particularly on the three main priorities:

  1. Cruise Operations: The adjacent cruise operations must be considered in the site plan process. In order to address the longstanding concerns of cruise emissions, assure residents cruise operations will not expand, and safeguard public access, the Conservation League recommends incorporating shorepower infrastructure and the resulting electrical grid considerations as well as shortening the dock space with entirely separate access points for cruise passengers.
  2. Streetscapes and Transportation Infrastructure: Proposed block sizes on the current site plan appear to be too large. Union Pier should return to the traditional scale of dense, mixed-use development that makes Charleston such a desirable and walkable city. This can be achieved through additional staggered small streets or alleys along the east/west axis to break up the large blocks. Protected bicycle lanes are needed for Washington, Concord and Hassel streets. Development plans should accommodate current and future transit services such as the Lowcountry Rapid Transit system, Carta DASH shuttles, and regional ferries.
  3. Public Parks & Open Space: The Union Pier redevelopment should provide substantial access to open space for all of the residents of Charleston. The most recent design suggests approximately one-tenth of the total site will be set aside for public parks and open space. At minimum, 25% of the total site should be set aside for pocket parks scattered throughout the property in addition to a few larger park spaces to achieve the overall open space goal.

Next Steps:

Before moving into the official approval processes of Planning Commission and City Council to rezone the property from Industrial to Planned Unit Development (PUD), at which point and public input can only be reactive, the Conservation League urges the project team to slow down the master planning process to ensure all voices can be heard. For a project of this scale and significance for the future of Charleston, it is vital that all details, concerns and desires from the community are reflected in the PUD language. Therefore, additional public engagement is needed in order to solicit feedback on the proposed master plan. Environmental objectives should be explained in greater detail, along with a rationale for the proposed changes on the site.

You can read more about our position and see talking points here


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