May 24, 2024

Square Feet: Historic City at Odds With Its Popularity as Cruise Port

Last month, a $2.4 million contract to design the new terminal, which will cost $25 million, was awarded to a Colorado company, CH2M Hill. The company plans to convert an empty 100,000-square-foot steel warehouse at the north end of the 67-acre Union Pier complex to replace the existing 18,000-square-foot cinder block terminal, built in 1973, at the south end.

The terminal is seen as an essential step in what the South Carolina State Ports Authority, the project’s developer, says will be a much larger demolition and mixed-use development project that will divide the Union Pier complex in two. Twenty-two acres at the north end is reserved for the terminal and parking for cruise ship passengers. Some eight acres of pilings and concrete deck would be removed. And 35 acres of shoreline property with exquisite views of the harbor will be made available for private development.

“Our vision is to extend the city grid to the waterfront,” said Mayor Riley, a 68-year-old Democrat first elected in 1975. “There will be a combination of public spaces, waterfront access, residential and commercial development. We have the conceptual plan. It’s the starting point for a new part of Charleston that begins along the water’s edge, and from there mixes uses in a low-rise 18th- and 19th-century-scale city.”

Opponents say their concerns center on what the new terminal is supposed to achieve: enhancing Charleston’s growing reputation as a destination and a home port for cruise ships. This year the port expects 175,000 passengers from 90 cruises, up from 69 cruises and 111,000 passengers in 2010.

The critics, among them the Preservation Society of Charleston; the Historic Charleston Foundation; and some of the city’s most prominent real estate agents, hotel owners and downtown homeowners, say the growing number of cruise passengers could hurt residential real estate sales, run roughshod over the city’s historic charm and character, and detract from the new shoreline development.

“The prescription for a high-quality destination does not include being overrun with cruise ships,” said P. Steven Dopp, the president of the Portwood Properties Corporation, the principal owner of the 12-story, 87-year-old Francis Marion Hotel, one of Charleston’s grandest. “The scale of the ships and the number of people dumped on the street — it’s not what Charleston was or wants to be.”

Dana Beach, the executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, said: “Union Pier is some of the most valuable real estate in the South. Using almost half for a terminal and surface parking for passengers is absurd.”

The debate over the port’s plan reflects the vigilance that Charlestonians exhibit over development projects big and small. In the 1980s, in a similarly heated struggle, preservationists and city officials tussled over the height of Charleston Place, a 441-room hotel at the center of the historic area. The hotel was opened in 1986 with eight stories, six fewer than the 14 initially proposed.

The debate over preservation aside, Charleston has fared better than most during the downturn. The marine terminal is one of three active public sector projects intended to strengthen the tourism industry, valued by the city at $3 billion annually.

Just north and west of Union Pier, the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, a theater and exhibition center built in 1968, awaits a $142 million renovation and expansion. The 2,726-seat auditorium will lose 900 seats and the roof will be raised to incorporate boxes and three levels of balcony. The 119,000-square foot building will expand to 261,000 square feet. The project includes constructing a 84,000-square-foot addition to house city offices and staff. The city is financing half of the construction; the other half is being raised privately, led by a $20 million gift from a donor who has asked to remain anonymous.

Seven blocks south, the Charleston City Market, which dates to the early 19th century, is undergoing a $5 million renovation that is close to completion. The market, owned by the city, is leased and managed by City Market Preservation Trust. Hank Holliday, one of three principals, who also operates three hotels and several restaurants in the market area, said the company undertook the publicly financed renovation “in self defense.” The four brick buildings, three of them open-air, had deteriorated significantly enough that they had the potential to affect property values, he said.

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