Crucial Takeaways on Union Pier
preservation-admin , January 31, 2023
The turnout at our winter member meeting demonstrated the extraordinary community interest in the redevelopment proposal for Union Pier. More than 400 of you attended or watched online. The meeting was extremely timely as we have just learned that the Ports Authority has officially filed its rezoning application with the City (details forthcoming).
This is no ordinary project. Whether you’ve been following closely or are just learning, the sheer intensity of development proposed deserves major scrutiny. To be clear, we are deeply concerned that the plan lacks a vision for addressing community needs, climate resilience, public space and inclusivity, in particular.
It will take substantial political pressure to move the Ports Authority away from its fast-tracked plan to maximize real estate value at the expense of the public realm. At our meeting, we afforded Lowe and the SPA a platform in good faith to present its current plan. In response, several points deserve particular emphasis:
- A public waterfront is not a concession, but a requirement. Union Pier is currently public land and the SPA has an obligation to ensure that tidelands are not privatized. Sale to a private entity must, by law, include public realm components, including access to the waterfront.
- SPA stands to make a windfall profit on the sale of public land compared to its purchase price. Starting in 1947, the SPA assembled the Union Pier property in a piecemeal fashion, paying approximately $500,000 over several decades (roughly $4 million in today’s dollars), including the City-owned Union Wharf property. Its contract with Lowe is designed to maximize this land value. We must ensure that its profit does not come at the community’s expense.
- The financial underpinnings of the plan must be structured responsibly. The proposed use of a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district must be given considerable scrutiny. These mechanisms, using tax money normally reserved for a variety of community-supporting purposes, redirect public resources to subsidize intense new development projects.
- We must demand more public space outside of unbuildable acreage. Our Zoning Code requires Planned Unit Development applications to dedicate 20% of land to open space. The proposed plan locates the majority of this space on the undevelopable pier portion of the property, rather than within the buildable area where it would be more accessible to non-residents in the new neighborhood.
- The City must lead with a vision. The City of Charleston currently has no guiding vision for the Union Pier site. It is impossible under this status quo for the Port to prove its proposal is consistent with city planning objectives. The City must put in place a values-driven plan before it can entertain this type of rezoning application, especially to the extent it deviates from the existing zoning framework where new high-intensity uses are to be avoided by the waterfront.
There is no more critical a time to be principled and diligent in our advocacy efforts. As we learn more about specifics about this project over the coming weeks, we will be keeping you informed and apprised of key opportunities to make your voice heard.