Potential redevelopment of the State Ports Authority’s offices on Concord Street — the only waterfront site where a large hotel could be built on Charleston Harbor — is drawing criticism from historic and environmental preservation groups who say the city is ignoring the public’s input on a project that could change the peninsula’s landscape.
“Bottom line, a negotiation is going on behind closed doors out of public view, and it’s happening at lightning speed,” said Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League.
The site could become home to a 225-room hotel, and redevelopment guidelines appear to ignore the city’s stated goal of providing some sort of public access along the water’s edge, leading City Councilman Dean Riegel to call the project “another Sergeant Jasper potentially,” referring to the city’s long-running battle over a controversial Broad Street redevelopment.
The SPA’s board on Wednesday unanimously authorized CEO Jim Newsome to negotiate a contract to sell the office space at 176 Concord St. and the adjacent Fleet Landing restaurant site to one of 12 bidders that submitted proposals.
The board did not announce the winning bidder or the amount, saying the chosen developer has five days to enter into a contract by paying an additional $750,000 in earnest money. All bidders had to pay a refundable $250,000 deposit when their proposals were submitted.
“We will not disclose the identity of the successful bidder until this money is in hand,” said SPA spokeswoman Erin Dhand.
Beach, who has battled the SPA over the proposed new location of its new cruise terminal, said the redevelopment process has already been tainted because city officials flip-flopped on what kind of project they would support even before a winning bid had been selected.
The 1.4-acre office site is in an accommodations zone that would allow a hotel with up to 225 rooms, the largest allowable new hotel project south of the Septima P. Clark Parkway.
But there has been confusion throughout the 2½-month bidding process about what kind of project the city would support. On March 28, roughly two weeks before the bidding deadline, Mayor John Tecklenburg issued a “white paper” outlining the city’s stance. That document stated that the city would not support any hotel project with more than 150 rooms.
Also, the city wanted to take back 100 parking spaces it had given the SPA at a public garage across the street from its offices. The SPA initially told prospective buyers those spots would convey with the property.
Newsome then met with Tecklenburg and city staff, and a second white paper was issued April 1. That document removed any wording about the size of a hotel that would be supported and said the parking spaces could be negotiated between the city and developer. Parking will play a key role in the development because of the limited space available at the office site.
“We wanted to make sure that the white paper reflected the most accurate situation relative to the sale of the building, and I think that what has been communicated now does,” Newsome said of the meeting with Tecklenburg and others. “Clearly, the issue of the parking being conveyable came up at that meeting.”
City spokesman Jack O’Toole said the 150-room reference was removed from the second document to reflect a developer’s legal right to build up to 225 rooms, depending on zoning and other approvals. The city also decided to negotiate a final price for the parking spaces rather than take them back.
Newsome said he doesn’t know if the guideline changes affected bidders’ decisions.
“I don’t really have any insight into their thinking because we didn’t have face-to-face communication with them,” Newsome said. “It was very arm’s-length communication to be very objective.”
Beach called the apparent flip-flop on room limits “gross negligence in negotiating” and said Tecklenburg and city staff had no right to say what would gain support without first getting public input.
“It confers as a given that a hotel is the highest and best use for that site, and that’s not a given,” he said, adding that the white papers could become a legal liability if the city challenges a developer’s plans.
Susan Bass, president of the French Quarter Neighborhood Association, said no one from the city or SPA has reached out to the group to discuss the redevelopment, which would sit on the eastern edge of the small neighborhood’s historic area.
In addition, the SPA wants to build its new cruise ship terminal just north of its office site — a project that is opposed by historic and environmental groups.
“We feel so fragile in this neighborhood because we have everything going here,” Bass said. “We love the commercial aspect, and we love to be able to walk to restaurants, but it’s getting crazy. We’re concerned about the added traffic burden.”
Also, the city’s Downtown Development Plan calls for continuing the emerging waterfront trail around the lower peninsula, extending from Waterfront Park just south of the SPA offices. The city’s first white paper called for an access easement to the park, presumably for the public, but did not address further development of the waterfront trail. The revised white paper changed the wording to give only the city access to the park from the SPA site and only for maintenance activities. It also did not address plans for extending the public waterfront area.
Beach said he asked the city early in the bidding process to hold a public meeting to get input on plans for the SPA’s site, but “I haven’t heard anything back from them.”
He said the city “is missing the biggest opportunity we will have in our lifetime to sit down and look at the future use of property extending from Waterfront Park to south of Columbus Street.”
Whatever plans are submitted will have to go through the city’s regulatory process, including possible reviews by the planning commission, zoning and architectural review boards and — if there’s an appeal — the court system.
Robert Behre of The Post and Courier contributed to this report. Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_