A new development plan for Union Pier Terminal would restore Charleston's "historical front door," according to a consultant who described the current configuration as "making a garden and then putting all this junk in front of it."
The concept unveiled Tuesday calls for demolishing most of the aging buildings on the property, opening up some 50 acres of valuable waterfront land for public use and redevelopment. Also, it would relocate BMW's local port operations and shift cruise ship passengers from the dated terminal near the end of Market Street to an existing cargo building at the pier's north end.
Jaque Robertson, whose New York-based urban design firm was hired by the State Ports Authority as a consultant to evaluate the property, called the redevelopment proposal "one of the half-dozen most important urban projects in the U.S."
More than 200 people came to an afternoon presentation by port officials and Robertson's company inside the existing passenger terminal, which would be razed under the new plan. The new master plan also would shift Charleston's cruise business into a larger building that's now used to handle other cargo, possibly within three years.
The plan also moves cruise traffic away from the Market Street bustle by directing ship passengers onto the terminal site to park. A redrawn map of the area shows a series of rundown port buildings would be removed to create space for new parks, streets and unspecified real estate ventures.
Officials stressed that everything revealed Tuesday was nothing more than conceptual, saying a master plan could take decades to execute and that the details are likely to change over time. The type of future development at Union Pier, whether resident or commercial, will be driven by market demands.
"It will go fast at times and slow at times," Robertson said. "It may be 80 percent housing. It may not."
Jim Newsome, the SPA's chief executive, said the first order of business will be to find a new home for BMW's operations at Union Pier, which now mainly handles vehicles made in the Upstate for export. Talks are already under way, and a deal could be struck by the end of March, he said.
Newsome identified the SPA's North Charleston Terminal as one possible location for the automaker. He noted that Union Pier cannot accommodate the German company's port needs over the long run.
"We will take care of BMW," Newsome said. "They're a strategic partner. They're important to the port. They're important to the state."
He said the SPA could transfer its cruise operations to the new terminal site by mid-2012 at earliest. Newsome said the project likely would involve a public-private partnership but said it was too early to share any cost estimates.
The master plan comes after a series of community forums and feedback sessions with neighborhood groups and businesses. Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said the redevelopment would, in effect, extend Waterfront Park to the north. Any decisions based on the plan would change the city forever, he added.
"I think if you do a measurement of great cities around the world ... you measure the degree of community interest and engagement, and the higher that is, the greater the city," Riley said.
The proposed changes call for the removal of about 8 acres of existing dock space at Union Pier. The plan still allows for a single-berth cruise terminal that the SPA anticipates would handle no more than two 2,000-person ship calls a week.
After sharing key points from the master plan, officials split the audience into small groups for discussion and shared some of the feedback before wrapping up the meeting. Katie Zimmerman, a project manager with the Coastal Conservation League, said that portion of the program fell short.
"They really watered down the comments," said Zimmerman, whose group is pushing for written standards regarding cruise-ship emissions and waste disposal. "There were lots of concerns about traffic. There were several concerns about the type of business and concern that cruises degrade quality of life."
In moving BMW's operations, the master plan would reduce freight-train traffic in the area. It also considers closing a portion of Concord Street to non-cruise traffic during ship calls or using Washington Street as an alternate route to the terminal.
Mark Lang, store director of the Harris Teeter grocery store across from Union Pier, said congestion affects his customers but that aesthetics affect his future.
"From our business perspective, we're very excited the whole area is going to be developed," he said. "It's kind of an eyesore now. ... We're hoping to get a bigger, better store out of this."
Erin Mellen, president of Charleston Convention and Group Services, said the plan works better for departing tours she organizes from the cruise terminal but that older passengers might need shuttle service to reach the popular City Market area from the new embarkation site.
Planners with Robertson's firm, Cooper Robertson and Partners, spent time at Historic Charleston Foundation poring through archived documents and images from the waterfront over the centuries. The foundation's director, Kitty Robinson, said she appreciated that the team "came up with a concept plan that is so thoughtful of what they heard from the community."
For example, it considers using the Bennett Rice Mill facade -- a single side of brick building preserved in time behind Union Pier's fences -- as a backdrop for waterfront performances.
Elsewhere, a new park shown within the port property could house a pavilion showcasing the city's rich maritime history.
"It's incredibly interesting," said Robertson, whose "historical front door" comment stemmed from the fact that for centuries most Charleston visitors arrived on ships that tied up at the current Union Pier site.
The SPA agreed to pay Cooper Robertson about $1.3 million for its work. Officials will deliver an update at another community meeting in late spring.
John P. McDermott contributed to this report. Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594 or email@example.com.