Redevelopment of Union Pier
Union Pier is a roughly 65-acre waterfront site downtown Charleston. It’s owned by the South Carolina Ports Authority, and has been used for shipping, port operations, and a cruise terminal.
The Ports Authority ended its homeport contract with Carnival Cruise Lines and will only support short-term port-of-calls starting in 2025. As a result, a large portion of Union Pier will be redeveloped.
WHERE ARE WE IN THE PROCESS?
To make this project possible, the Ports Authority is requesting that the property be rezoned from its current industrial zoning to a Planned Unit Development (PUD), which allows for an applicant to effectively create their own zoning requirements within a set of guidelines provided by the City.
- For months, the Ports Authority and their consultant Lowe created their PUD to determine how the property would be developed, and then submitted those plans to the City of Charleston for review. It had to go through Technical Review Committee, then Planning Commission, and then finally City Council.
- At this point, the proposed plan failed to meet the standards set by the City, the Ports Authority, and the people of Charleston for a world-class waterfront that is seamlessly integrated with the surrounding neighborhoods.
- At a June 7 Planning Commission meeting focused on the proposed Union Pier project, Barbara Melvin, President and CEO of the Ports Authority, assured the hundreds of concerned citizens gathered in the passenger terminal that the agency was listening to the voices of Charlestonians, who were demanding a more inclusive and thoughtful process.
- On June 16, Ports Authority and city leaders made good on that promise by announcing a change in course to provide an opportunity for Charleston to engage in a collaborative, community-led visioning process to shape the future of Union Pier. Port officials announced they would work with the Joe Riley Center for Livable Communities at the College of Charleston to create the new plan for Union Pier, taking more time — possibly a year — to do so.
- In August, the Riley Center formed a stakeholder advisory committee to inform the process for determining the future of Union Pier, marking the first formal step in the new community-led planning process. The Conservation League will serve on this committee, alongside other community partners.
WE ONLY HAVE ONE CHANCE TO GET THIS RIGHT.
- Charleston’s Historic Neighborhoods were named one of the 11 Most Endangered Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation due to the threat of incompatible development at Union Pier along the Cooper River Waterfront.
- Everyone who lives in or visits Charleston will be impacted by the scope and scale of the development – and the proposed financing options – that the Ports Authority seeks.
- This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to open access to this beautiful waterfront for all of Charleston’s citizens, as well as our visitors.
- We don’t simply need something designed with Charleston in mind. We need a plan with Charleston at its heart.
- The Conservation League, in coalition with Historic Charleston Foundation and Preservation Society of Charleston remain steadfast in our shared vision for the redevelopment of Union Pier:
- Union Pier must be resilient and embrace both the natural and historic features of the site.
- Union Pier must be of appropriate size, scale and character to serve as an extension of our historic city.
- Union Pier must provide real benefits to all people of Charleston, ranging from ample public greenspace to substantial affordable housing.
Union Pier is located on the east side of Charleston’s historic district between Concord and Laurens Streets downtown. It 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. This will free up a large portion of the property for redevelopment. SCPA will maintain ownership of the cruise terminal located at the southern end of the property, but are working on plans to rezone and 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Public Parks & Open Space: The Union Pier redevelopment should provide substantial access to open space for all residents of Charleston. At minimum, 25% of the total site should be set aside for usable, public open space such as pocket parks scattered throughout the property in addition to a few larger park spaces and the waterfront park and promenade. Development of and public access to the usable open space should be prioritized during the buildout that will take place over the course of many years and in many phases. Additional open space must be included upland of the Critical Line because the proposed improvements to its east, including the island park, will be subject to significant permitting requirements (state and federal) which will not be resolved by the time the rezoning is requested. Pushing for more open greenspace and less impervious surface only stands to benefit the functionality and aesthetic value of the development, and will allow for expanded community connection to the landscape and resilience of the area for years to come.
Before moving into the official, months-long approval processes of Technical Review Committee, 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. Union Pier should become a vibrant neighborhood that serves as an asset to benefit the people who live here.