City and port officials unveiled an aggressive plan Thursday to take cargo out of the historic district, to move cruise business north and to connect Market Street with public access to the Cooper River.
State Ports Authority chief executive Jim Newsome called the project "a graceful connection between land and water."
It would remove from the tourism-rich area 200 cargo ships per year, two or three trains each day and 1,800 trucks and cars every week. And it would begin taking shape just one year from now.
Newsome revealed the next steps for redeveloping Union Pier Terminal at a community meeting inside the cruise building Thursday afternoon. He explained that, without public buy-in, his agency would revamp that building, a nearly 40-year-old structure with space constraints.
"We think that would be a tragedy, and our sense tells us the community agrees," Newsome said.
The proposal instead follows a year of discussions with residents, business owners and other community stakeholders. The SPA agreed to pay New York-based urban design firm Cooper Robertson and Partners $1.3 million to develop the plan.
Newsome pointed out that cruises present three major challenges: managing traffic, maintaining a reasonable size and protecting the environment. He said the new plan would reduce overall traffic and end Washington Street closures during cruise calls and that the SPA planned to limit the cruise business to two 3,500-passenger ships per week. Newsome also said no evidence suggests current environmental regulations fall short or that Charleston Harbor has experienced any mistreatment by pleasure ships.
The redevelopment proposal would move the passenger terminal north to a larger cargo building and demolish the existing structure and most of the surrounding rundown buildings. That would open up some 50 acres of prime real estate for private development and public streets and parks.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, a proponent of the cruise industry, praised the plan for clearing out unattractive industrial operations and replacing them with public green spaces along the water.
"The fact of the matter is it would've been simple for the port to say, 'We need to rehab this building,' " Riley said from inside the current passenger terminal Thursday. "They didn't do that. They rather came to us."
The plan calls for preserving the Bennett's Rice Mill facade, that single side of a brick building oddly positioned alongside roll-on/roll-off cargo operations at Union Pier. The plan also restores a historic landing at the U.S. Customhouse and establishes a public plaza at the foot of the building.
The ambitious timeline calls for a request for proposals from architects by year's end and a start to construction a year later. The new cruise terminal would open in the third quarter of 2012, according to Newsome, and then planning would shift toward the non-port components.
Erin Mellen, president of Charleston Convention and Group Services, called the presentation a good compromise in limiting the number of ship calls to two per week but allowing cruises to carry 3,500 people.
"I'm looking forward to having a new terminal," she added. "I'm just tickled."
Nancy Vinson, project manager with the Coastal Conservation League, wasn't so sure.
"When you want to know about the fox guarding the henhouse, you don't go to the fox's website," she said. She specifically worries about discharges into local waters, comparing the existing regulations to monitoring interstate traffic without positioning any police officers on the roadway.
Elizabeth Farley Clark, president of the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, praised the SPA for its ongoing communication with residents who live closest to Union Pier as the plan developed. She sits on a newly formed Cruise Neighbors Advisory Council that will meet quarterly.
"They've presented every opportunity to ask them questions and to become educated with the facts," Clark said.
Port officials estimate that about 1,000 cruise ships have called Charleston over the past four decades. One College of Charleston study reported a $37 million economic impact this year alone.
Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594 or firstname.lastname@example.org.