Serious call for new terminal site

Carnival cruise in port at the Passenger Terminal. (Grace Beahm/File)

Neighbors, preservationists, environmentalists, physicians, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and even the S.C. Supreme Court have said that the cruise industry is making problems for Historic Charleston.

Now the city Planning Commission has joined the chorus. It is a disappointment and a puzzlement that Mayor Joe Riley has said the recommendation is not even worth considering.

In its meeting Monday to consider proposed changes to the city’s Tourism Management Plan, the Planning Commission surprised the audience by voting 8-1 in favor of reconsidering the site for the new State Ports Authority passenger terminal.

Instead of simply approving the plan, the commission added a stipulation: Consider a site farther away from the city’s congested historic district.

It’s a worthy suggestion and one that the mayor and Charleston City Council should examine seriously when the issue is considered on May 12.

The mayor’s deaf ear on this issue has angered residents, who have been saying for years that cruise ships need to be regulated and that the site of a new passenger terminal needs to be moved.

The mayor has contended that complaints about traffic, congestion, air pollution and noise are exaggerated, unfounded and even elitist.

The SPA contends that it has already investigated alternate sites and chosen Union Pier because it works best. But the public has not been privy to that report, and it should be.

Further, if the SPA is to reapply for a federal permit to drive piles for the terminal, providing such a report will likely be required. So why not go ahead and share the information?

City Council needs to stand up for what is in the best interest of the city and its residents. One factor to take into account is that the tourism management recommendations include construction of a second visitors center farther north on the peninsula. A passenger terminal farther up the river might dovetail nicely.

Planning Commission Chairman Francis X. McCann said at the meeting that the city has the luxury of taking a breather on the subject. The SPA’s construction plans are on hold due to a court ruling. Meanwhile, it has become clear that cruise ships have not grown the local economy as the SPA predicted.

During that lull, city residents should expect that an independent, objective, comprehensive study be done on something as important as the terminal site — and that the full study be made public.

The new guidelines regarding cruise ships, if accepted, ask for four things: remote parking for passengers; shore power to cut down on air pollution from ships running their engines while at dock; a head tax to help reimburse the city for expenses associated with cruises; and a strengthening of the regulations limiting the number and size of cruise ships in Charleston.

Those are all reasonable recommendations, and the location of the terminal is every bit as important to the city of Charleston — particularly its historic area. Maybe more so.

Mr. McCann said that earnest negotiations are not too much to ask of the SPA. He also said that it’s time for Charleston’s leadership to concede that there is not a city in the country or in the world that has benefited culturally from having a cruise terminal in a historic area.

The Planning Commission correctly acknowledged the hard work of the many people who contributed to the Tourism Management Plan. That plan offers insightful and helpful ways to protect the city’s livability amid the strains of fast-increasing tourism. Its recommendation to reconsider locating the terminal up the river should be viewed as an enhancement to the larger plan.

The mayor and City Council have so far been cavalier about their constituents’ concerns and have simply accepted the SPA’s option as presented. But they have offered no acceptable reasons not to negotiate with the SPA to ensure that the terminal site is best for the city as well as for the SPA.