What Union Pier Could Be

Coastal Conservation League's Betsy La Force discusses what Charleston, SC's Union Pier could be.

What Union Pier Could Be
Detailed Land Use Plan for Union Pier in Charleston, SC
What Union Pier Could Be with CCL's Betsy La Force

Full Transcript

Belvin: Hello, I'm here with Betsy La Force from Coastal Conservation League, the communities and transportation senior project manager. [Ed. note: Betsy’s new title is Director of Sustainable Communities.] Hey Betsy, thanks so much for being here.

Betsy: Thanks for having me.

Belvin: We're here to talk through the Union Pier development. For folks who aren't familiar, Betsy, would you mind just filling folks in on the basics of the project, where it is and what's happening with it?

Betsy: Absolutely. So the Union Pier site is on the historic Charleston Peninsula, right behind the Harris Teeter grocery store on East Bay Street. It's actually a 64-acre property, so it's really big. Since the founding of Charleston in 1670, this site has been closed off for port and shipping operations. This redevelopment proposal is exciting because it has the potential to open up that waterfront area back to the public. For the past several decades, much of that prime waterfront real estate has been closed off for private operations of the Ports Authority.

Betsy: Many folks may be familiar with the Carnival Cruise operation, which has been a primary activity at the site. Carnival had a lease with the Ports Authority, using Union Pier as their home port terminal operation. So in May of last year of 2022, the Ports Authority announced their plans to transition away from that home port contract. When the lease ends between the Ports Authority and Carnival in 2024, the Ports Authority will pivot away from these longer home port stays into more abbreviated port of call stays, freeing up a big portion of the property that's been used essentially for parking and cruise operations for redevelopment.

Belvin: So what once was a massive parking lot for crews, in some defunct port buildings is now going to be a giant new development in the heart of downtown Charleston.

Betsy: Yep, exactly. Parking crews, cargo and some shipping will all get moved away from this site. Cruise is just going to be a very small portion of it that Ports Authority is maintaining ownership of. They're only going to be daytime stopovers. They're not going to be staying in Charleston. This is going to be a new mixed-use community within our existing community.

Belvin: I believe the developer LOWE has been commissioned by the Ports Authority to put together their vision and they recently released a proposal. What can you tell us about that proposal?

Betsy: Yep, that's exactly right. So the Ports Authority is seeking a rezoning from what the site is currently zoned light industrial to PUD or planned unit development. The proposed plan that was released at the end of January shows pretty dense development, with about 1600 multifamily residential units and around 600 hotel rooms on the 36 or so acres of developable land. It also calls for a large amount of retail and office space, upwards of 540,000 square feet, which is about half the size of the Northwoods mall in North Charleston. It's a high-density proposal, and it will be interesting to see how it evolves.

Belvin: And what in terms of affordable housing is being proposed?

Betsy: Yes, so unfortunately, not much affordable housing at all has been proposed. I mentioned the 1600 units, only 50 units out of the 1600 are being proposed as affordable units right now. So needless to say, that's nowhere near enough. And that's something that I'm hoping the community will really come together and rally around to push for not only more affordable housing units, but once more of the details are flushed out, we're still in a pretty early stage of the planning process, but that those affordable units are dispersed all throughout the site. So they're not just in one location, maybe far away from the water or, you know, in a less desirable area that they would be all over the site and accessible with multimodal transportation infrastructure, protected with, you know, resilient urban design principles. So making sure the site's not going to flood, surrounding communities aren't going to flood. I know we're going to talk more about that. But affordability, durability, sustainability, those are all things that we think about, you know, beyond just the number of units, which so far is nowhere near enough.

Belvin: Right. It seems to me like we could describe the current proposal as developer autopilot, the things that are most lucrative, but maybe not the best feature for the City of Charleston. So what I'd like to talk through is, what if we imagined a truly climate friendly Union Pier, something that was holistically environmental and human and is designed as something that I think that people of Charleston would be happier to have be added to the urban landscape?

Betsy: Yeah.

Belvin: So, green space. What is the current proposal for green space that they have? And what's being left on the table?

Betsy: Yes, absolutely. So the green space so far proposed is about 19 acres. And I think that, you know, a lot of folks would say, Okay, that's pretty good. There's there's 36 acres of uplands, 19 acres of which are proposed for open space, but a lot of that's actually not on the upland. So a big part of the open space that's being proposed is on the existing pier area. So it's going to be, hopefully, if it translates to reality upon build out, a pretty cool Island Park concept, or really big park, right there on the water, that I think will be a huge community benefit and asset if done well. That being said, there isn't enough green space on the rest of the property. So that's a site that makes sense to put green space, because it's really, it's not developable, you couldn't put buildings there. It's in the critical area, like in the marsh. So you wouldn't be able to develop, you know, hotel or multifamily building right on that site. So it makes sense to put green space there.

But in addition to that, you know, we're advocating that some of the other upland areas should also be allocated and set aside as green space. Even though that is developable land. That could be, you know, buildings can be built on it, you can make a lot of money as the developer, but more of those areas should be set aside in the public realm. And so far, you know, some of the city planning staff and our first review of this PUD basically said the same thing, you know, there needs to be a lot more public open space.

And one reason folks are responding in that way, as you may recall, or some folks listening back in the fall, the development team did a series of public meetings, four or five public meetings to kind of show the vision for the plan. And those meetings showed a really, really kind of exciting opportunity and vision with a lot of open space, a lot of thoughtful amenities for the public realm. Some serious considerations for how to appropriately preserve the historic Bennett Rice Mill facade, open up promenade along to the waterfront, have nice ocean breezes, all these things that we think of when we think of Charleston.

So when the first HUD submittal was reviewed by city planning staff, you know, we were encouraged, our organization, that the response was basically like, hey, we really liked the vision that you showed us back in the fall of the Open House meetings. And this PUD document, this iteration, doesn't seem to reflect or capture that vision. So the developers are basically sent back to the drawing board which is totally normal. You know, in these processes, especially big development projects like this with pages and pages of notes and revisions to make, including setting aside a lot more open space, not counting the OCRM critical area towards the open space. And not counting some of the public right of way area, like in the streetscapes, where we might have some green infrastructure like bioswales, that's great, and that should be built. But that shouldn't count towards open space that should be truly designated park space for the public to enjoy beyond just what's going to be designated right there on the waterfront where the where the pier is now.

Belvin: Right. And that's a lot of impermeable surfaces, they'll be going up in the city, if it's just all cityscape and concrete cement.

Betsy: Exactly. Yes. So that's another thing that  I'm really hoping folks who are interested in this will ask for and their call to action for decision makers is to require that there'll be a lot of permeable surfaces, perhaps a certain percentage of the overall site. You know, one thing that the project team, the development team has said from the beginning is that their intention is that this will be a truly world class sort of resilient urban design, a model to look towards when thinking about how to build into the future. So what better opportunity than now, to really do this well, and really get this right especially considering this is a rare chance to have essentially a blank slate. This isn't redeveloping an existing site or using existing buildings with existing streets having to figure out okay, we only have so much area for roadways, we can only work within these existing confines, this is a totally fair game starting from scratch, you know, build whatever, whatever size parks whatever size, sidewalks bike paths that that we want to see here.

Betsy: So we think that they're, you know, it's the perfect opportunity to basically shoot for the stars and get everything that is called for and all of our existing city plans, you know, many of those that were recently adopted, like the the city plan, the comprehensive plan that has the land and water analysis, and at the city wide transportation plan, all this work already been done by the Climate Action Plan. So to just simply right now, that's a pretty, pretty simple ask to make a requirement that this proposal be consistent and compatible with all of the existing city plans, and those that are being developed right now, like the water plan. So that this must meet the standards and be compatible and align with all of this city plan so that it's not, you know, inconsistent with the vision that the city set forth with climate issues, with water issues, with affordable housing issues, with transportation issues. The work’s already been done. So we don't need to reinvent the wheel.

Belvin: Right. Well, speaking of transportation issues, what multimodal options have been put into this proposal in terms of walk and bike infrastructure? And if there hasn't been much, what should it look like? How can we in this new blank canvas have a truly walkable and bikeable area of city?

Betsy: Yes, so that's another one where really not enough detail at this point. There are some beautiful renderings of what could be some nice city streets, but there isn't a ton of detail on, where are the dedicated and protected bike lanes going to be? How are people going to access, whether they're walking from other areas in the city, biking from other areas in the city? How are they going to be able to connect into and interact with this new development and get to the water, for example. So right now, there's a couple of options for a bike lane on Washington Avenue or East Bay Street. So those need to be kind of finalized, I think there should be both, bike infrastructure, pedestrian infrastructure, you know, infrastructure for all road users throughout the entire site.

And again, the work has already been laid with the city wide transportation plan. I think it's really important to think about, you know, as we're building this property from the ground up, what will the publicly accessible Union Pier site look like in 100 years from now? Who is it going to serve? And will it align with the recommendations from so many of these previous planning efforts? There are so many golden opportunities for the streetscapes and the public rights of way here. It's important to remember these areas will ultimately be owned and maintained by the city so with taxpayer dollars, and so they should really connect completely and safely with Wonders Way on the Ravenel Bridge, bike share options, CARTA routes, the Ashley River bridge that's coming soon, the Lowcountry Rapid Transit that's coming soon. the Lowcountry Lowline, all of these future plans. And then set the scene for water transportation, there should be plans clearly called out for a public ferry system. And Union Pier is also along the East Coast Greenway route, the Battery to beach route, and the People Pedal Plan for Charleston.

So, so many opportunities to connect into this multimodal transportation infrastructure to lay the groundwork for more infrastructure. But right now, in the plan, those details are lacking. There's some verbiage around wanting this to be a climate friendly site in the sense that there don't want to be a lot of cars. So no minimum parking requirements. But along with that, there should be requirements for infrastructure for all of these, you know, things that we’re calling out. So without that detail, it's unlikely that those things would be built, right, because what goes into this pod document will be codified and whoever buys the property, they're going to be bound to whatever's in that pod document.

So the more detail that goes into that document, the better. The more requirements for all of these climate friendly, multimodal infrastructure opportunities, the better and those really all need to be in the plan. And right now, not much of that details.

Belvin: Are there other details there on green building practices?

Betsy: So yes, and no, there are details in the plan, but nothing requiring that to be built. So the design team, the development team, LOWE, they hired some world class designers and engineers to work on the site. There are details in the plan, but nothing requiring them to be built. The design team has hired world-class designers and engineers to work on the site, promoting green infrastructure like green roofs, bioswales, and rain gardens. However, without requirements in the plan, it's unlikely that these features will be built or maintained. A funding and maintenance plan for green infrastructure is missing from the pod and needs to be included. This is a chance to slow things down, make a plan, and get it right.

Belvin: Well, speaking of surrounding communities, I want to talk about the racial and economic justice aspect of this development. Because as you mentioned, currently, there's a vanishingly small amount of workforce housing, affordable housing. And this is in a city that has an affordable housing crisis and has had its black population been pushed out over decades and decades and decades consistently. So I want to speak to the ways in which this development could potentially start to reverse the trend, be conscientious about centralizing the folks who economically cannot afford luxury apartments, but deserve to be able to live in the city.

Betsy: Right. When I think about this project, and the way we've been talking about it in our office is wanting to call for and picture a Union Pier for all, not just a Union Pier development for people that might be fortunate enough to rent an office space there, rent a condo stay in a hotel room on the waterfront, but how is this development going to serve and integrate with our existing community, everyone who lives here – and in the city-wide transportation plan, it says specifically, it calls out – and same with the city plan. I mean, social justice is a huge component of our city plans and this paradigm shift that's occurring. So it's really important that that is considered here. And the quote from the citywide transportation plan is in Charleston, discrimination and racialized segregation played a major role in creating significant economic housing and transportation disparities that still have reverberating effects today.

So thinking again, about transit and accessibility, acknowledging that low income Americans are more likely to use transit, bike and walk in urban areas. This vision for Union Pier must not perpetuate these inequities. So we have to create a livable community that's accessible for everybody. And it goes back to some of these main themes we've been talking about, you know, more publicly accessible open space, access and direct safe connections to the water, housing for all community, you know, spaces for art venues, gatherings, which requires setting aside what could be developable, profitable, valuable, of course, waterfront space, for the public realm for everyone to use and enjoy?

Belvin: Absolutely, yeah. If we just went with what was most economically advantageous for developers, we’d have a city full of hotels. In some ways we do have a city full of hotels!

Betsy: Yes, we have – we have a lot of that already. Yeah, we've had enough of that.

Belvin: Well, so everything we've been discussing, all of these visions that are not pie in the sky are sort of what we need for a livable Charleston, for a climate conscious Charleston,  just accounting for mere decades into the future. One big question I have is, well, how do we get this into the plan? And how do we get involved in the process? Get some agency in what Union Pier looks like and agitate for change?

Betsy: I'm so glad you asked that Belvin. And I hope that we can work together in trying to get people to come out to these meetings that are being scheduled.

So, I mentioned this is early in the process. Right now it's at the technical review committee level. But to kind of jump back and just first answer your question, none of these things will happen. None of these essential elements will be put into the plan, if there isn't a huge, you know, mass of people asking and asking for the same thing.

So it's time for us to come together. The initial review is already happening at the technical review committee that's not historically a body that receives public comment. It's city staff. You can submit letters and actually by special request of the Mayor, the last meeting was open for the public to come attend in person. Typically the public can just watch on Zoom, the meetings being facilitated, and you can type in technical questions, but it's not one of those meetings that there's typically a lot of participation or attendance because it's so technical in nature.

But for a project of this magnitude, the Mayor has said that he really wants to make sure there's a lot of public involvement in this process. So even though it's still at the technical review committee level, encourage folks to follow along. You can access the PUD document on the technical review committee website. Read through it. It's pretty again technical and legal kind of jargon. It's hard to interpret, but groups like the Coastal Conservation League exist to help everyone kind of navigate the political process and some of these technical issues.

But next Thursday, there's an informational session scheduled at the planning commission, specifically on the resilience and stormwater aspects. The public are welcome to attend, ask questions, give comments. So definitely encourage folks to show up to that meeting and really speak for, you know, more open space green infrastructure. Some of those elements we've been talking about today, there are going to be special meetings on traffic and transportation, an information session on April 12. And then there's supposed to be more dates and announcements of other informational sessions that are being scheduled so that the folks who are ultimately going to be casting their vote yes or no on this proposal will also have the education and background they need to be able to make an informed decision.

And those folks, City Council, City Council ultimately holds the power. So they will be the last body to vote on this. Before that it'll be planning commission, they’re a recommending body so they will make a recommendation to City Council and then City Council will ultimately decide whether or not to vote for this.

Belvin: So theoretically, if City Council, through public pressure, put some lines in the sand, as in saying I won't vote for this unless there is public transportation, accessibility or green infrastructure, or all the things we're talking about. That could be a route to having agency in the process.

Betsy: That's right. Yes, the developers definitely understand the power of City Council through this process, they have the ultimate say, and there was a panel discussion hosted by the Post & Courier a few weeks ago that was recorded, that'd be a great way to get up to speed folks are just learning about or hearing about this project. But on that panel was Mayor Tecklenburg, Councilmember Mike Seekings, President and CEO of the Preservation Society, Brian Turner, our executive director Faith James, president of historic Ansonborough neighborhood association, Angela Drake.

And a big part of the discussion was, whoa, whoa, whoa, these buildings are way too tall. This is way too dense. The block sizes are way too big. This does not match the charm of historic Charleston district, this needs to get a haircut basically. So already, you know, the developers heard that message loud and clear from City Council and the Mayor, giving them a little precursor of what to expect, hopefully at those meetings later this year.

And then again, about the TRC meeting that happened at the very beginning of March, the Planning and Zoning Department said go back to the drawing board and make sure the vision that was advertised in the fall is captured in this document because right now it's missing. So through those channels, this process is getting slowed down a little bit, we have a lot of extra meetings being scheduled.

Honestly, this process we've heard in other cities where something similar has happened. Similar redevelopment of the waterfront should be like a two-year, potentially three-year, multiple-year-long process, to do this vision and make this plan and involve the community and make sure the community's vision is captured. But the development team has shared that they're hoping to have this to City Council by June, which seems really, really fast considering all these meetings that they have to go through.

So I don't suspect it will happen that quickly. And it certainly won't happen that quickly if the public gets involved and starts weighing in, in an organized fashion, singing from the same sheet of music, you know, asking for and I think the ask really is quite simple: let’s require that this project be compatible with existing city plans. And within those plans are all the elements that you and I have been talking about for climate and social justice, transportation equity, so we've got a long way to go.

This definitely can't be done alone with just one, two, or three organizations at the table. We need community support and input in a big way. And there's a lot of opportunities upcoming to get involved. So those special meetings are all scheduled before votes happen at planning commission or City Council. So we've definitely got some time to get organized and get out to the meetings. But this is moving quickly. So I want to make that clear. There should be a sense of urgency with getting involved in getting on the record with this.

Belvin: Put together a union.

Betsy: Put together a union…

Belvin: … of our peers.

Betsy: I like that.

Belvin: Is that cute?

Betsy: That's a perfect tagline. I think that's great.

Belvin: A union of our peers for a better Union Pier.

Betsy: I love it.

Belvin: Great. Well, thank you so much, Betsy, for joining us on Surge Radio. Is there anything else you'd like to share about Union Pier before we hop off?

Betsy: Thank you so much, Belvin, for having me. I think we covered a lot of really important topics for today. I don't want to overwhelm anyone, more discussions to be had, I hope and I'm sure. I think that's a great starting point. So really appreciate you and the Climate Coalition featuring this important project that's going to transform the future of the Charleston Peninsula and everyone that lives here and our whole region. So it's really important to get this right. And this will not be done right if the public isn't involved. So let's get to the table.