Union Pier Update
Written By Eleanor Smythe
Union Pier represents the most significant redevelopment opportunity for downtown Charleston in decades. The roughly 70-acre Union Pier site extending from Laurens Street to Waterfront Park lies at a critical juncture between the Cooper River and downtown. The main principles in the South Carolina Port Authority (SPA) master plan encompasses the 70- acres with different parcels for different uses. The total pier, marsh, wetland and open water area is 27.81 acres, or 43.36% of the total. There will be a mixed-use development portion with a suggested 270,000-square-feet of office space, space for 600 rooms of hotel accommodations and 1,600 units of housing and a few parks parsed throughout.
The SPA description says the development will create a mixed-use neighborhood where the area will blend in with existing buildings in Charleston. However, currently the planned unit development does the opposite.
In January SPA submitted a Planned Unit Development (PUD) to the Planning Commission. PUDs are real estate developments that are not subject to the standard zoning requirements, but instead work with the local government on a unique zoning plan to allow for flexibility in the development that will result in improved design, character, and quality. The Ports Authority had a plan prepared in 1996 and in it the architects cite key principles as the foundation for any Union Pier master plan: “Charleston’s traditional elements of urban design and planning - human scale, and a respect for precedent”. The plan also suggested that the redevelopment should also feel like the rest of downtown, a successful mix of residential structures, office, shops, and restaurants” and “human scaled urban environments are fundamental to society”. However the current plan is completely the opposite with multiple blocks of six and seven story buildings, there is little that is human scaled. The SPA plan appears to be driven by one goal: take as much profit from the redevelopment plan as possible by building massive bulk buildings with little to no character. We need to slow down and allow the city to take the reins and not be bullied by SPA to make quick decisions.
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 proposal will continue to undergo numerous approval processes with the city in the coming months.
On May 10, The National Trust for Historic Preservation put Charleston’s historic neighborhoods on its most endangered historic places list. The National Trust’s list identifies what they consider “urgent threats where community leaders have identified solutions that can result in better outcomes.”
Currently SPA/Lowes declined to submit their latest proposal to the City's Technical Review Committee that was scheduled on May 18th. Instead, they have ignored this important review step and are moving to present their proposal to the City's Planning Commission Meeting on June 7. Advocacy is needed to make sure this development represents all voices about the future of one of the most historic cities in our country!