City's cruise plan steams ahead

Cruise ship The Celebrity Mercury

A controversial plan to develop a new terminal in Charleston to serve roughly two cruise ships a week won City Council's approval Tuesday night after hours of discussion.

The cruise ship terminal would replace an existing one at the foot of Market Street, and is part of a larger $25 million State Ports Authority plan to redevelop the sprawling Union Pier Terminal property and shift cargo traffic north to the Columbus Street Terminal.

The city has been eyeing the Union Pier property for redevelopment for decades, and officials are excited about the prospect of remaking the waterfront at Market Street, but the increasing frequency of cruise ship visits has led to much controversy.

At the City Council meeting, about two dozen people spoke for and against the cruise ship plan in a three-hour debate that council members participated in before agreeing -- without a single "nay" vote -- to a resolution supporting the SPA plan.

Opponents that included preservation and environmental groups said the cruise ships visiting Charleston are too large and there are too many of them, causing traffic jams, waterfront eyesores and pollution.

Some said the cruise ships will attract a lower class of visitors to the city.

"It's good that people can enjoy this sort of inexpensive vacation, but we don't need to be the place for it," said South Battery resident Randy Pelzer, who said Carnival Cruise Lines could attract "the wrong type of tourists."

Advocating the cruise terminal and Union Pier redevelopment plan were local business groups, SPA officials, representatives of dock workers and several neighborhood groups.

"Good quality of life begins with having a job," said John Alvanos, president of the International Longshoremen's Association. "And cruise ships mean jobs."

Charles Rhoden, president of the Charleston Peninsular Neighborhood Consortium, which represents multiple downtown neighborhood associations, said the plan is good for neighborhoods, with its projected reductions in cargo-related truck and rail traffic.

Wendell Robinson, president of the Laurens Place condominium association -- Laurens Place abuts Union Pier -- was among those on the opposing side who wanted to see limits on the number of cruise ships visits, and local regulations on air and water pollution.

Dana Beach, director of the Coastal Conservation League, said that if the city doesn't cap the number of cruise ships allowed, "we are sure to regret it in the future."

The number of cruise ships coming to Charleston roughly doubled from 2008 to 2010, to 67 ships, and 94 are expected next year according to SPA.

Each ship carries 1,900 to 3,500 passengers, plus a large crew, so the projected number of ships could equate to 200,000 to 300,000 people.

Mayor Joe Riley, a strong supporter of the plan, said most of the ships are departing from Charleston and later returning, not just stopping by as a port of call, so the people going on cruises also are visiting the city, staying in local hotels, and buying local meals and goods.

"This is a city. A city with a port," he said. "It's about two ships a week, and if they want more, they (the SPA) will have to come back."

With a limit of one ship at any time -- the proposed terminal would only have room for one -- Riley said the ships would not harm the city's quality of life, and said he was put off by what he described as "hyperbole" from opponents.

A Southern Environmental Law Center representative told council that cruise ships can dump "grey water" laden with fecal coliform bacteria just outside the Charleston jetties, while SPA and city officials insisted cruise ships won't discharge anything within 12 miles of shore.

Among council members, few expressed concern about the cruise terminal and Union Pier redevelopment plan, and Councilman Mike Seekings said the plan is in keeping with what the council asked the SPA to do.

"I, frankly, trust the State Ports Authority," Councilman Dean Riegel said.

Councilman William Dudley Gregorie sought to postpone the vote on the resolution, saying he still had unanswered questions. He did not audibly vote for the resolution, but he did not vote against it. The rest of council, with Councilman Tim Mallard absent, voted for the resolution.

According to SPA, the shifting of cargo traffic from Union Pier Terminal will remove two or three trains each day and 1,800 trucks and cars every week from that area.

The new cruise terminal could open in the third quarter of 2012.