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Union Pier Forum Fails to Find Common Ground

By Warwick Jones
Citizen Reporter

If the purpose of a recent community forum that purportedly sought to bring different sides of the cruise ship/Union Pier plan issue closer, it failed.

But one suspects that forum sponsor Historic Charleston Foundation held no such optimistic hope. It is 18 months since the Foundation’s last forum – which was called “A Delicate Balance.”

It was out of that forum that a task force was formed to oversee the developments on the Charleston peninsula, which included Union Pier. But the issue over cruise ships and the Union Pier plan had grown large and in Historic Charleston’s view, another forum was needed to consider it.

It may also have been that the forum was a form of intimidation. Relatively recently, Historic Charleston dropped off its fence-sitting position and joined the critics of the plan, or at least some aspects of it.

Executive Director Kitty Robinson mentioned that the foundation was considering its legal options.

And it should be noted that the moderator for the forum was from the firm of White and Smith, which is undertaking for Historic Charleston “an initial assessment of legal alternatives for balancing quality of life and cruise activities in Charleston.”

The Physicians Hall auditorium was filled with an estimated 400 or so in attendance. It seemed that a third were wearing stickers supporting the port, a third wearing stickers opposing it and the remaining were without stickers.

Mayor Joe Riley and Jim Newsome, the chief executive of the State Ports Authority, were the most important members of the panel and of course were advocates for the existing plans.

They also had the unqualified support of Jaquelin Robertson, founding partner of Cooper Robertson and Partners, architects who drew up the Union Pier Plan.

The other five members of the panel generally had lots of praise for Riley, Robertson, the city of Charleston and for the Union Pier Plan. But there could be some improvements to the latter, they said.

Andrew Zitofsky of Dover, Kohl & Partners represented the extreme view, understandably as his firm was retained by the Coastal Conservation League to draw up an alternative plan.

For those who have followed the cruise ship issue closely, there was little new said at the forum. Members of the panel were asked a series of question by the moderator and answers were subject to time restraints.

But notwithstanding this seeming limitation, there was enough opportunity in the two- hour forum to give each panelist an opportunity to express his views on any aspect of the issue.

Despite the moderator’s attempt to quell it, the audience clapped for the responses they liked.

Unquestionably the loudest was for Riley. He was asked about the proper role of the city in dealing with such issues before it. He responded with: “to listen and seek the truth.”

He referred to some of the statements made by the Coastal Conservation League which were untrue. For example there was the photo the league showed of a dead whale on the bow of a cruise ship. The cruise ship did not kill the whale; it had been dead for five days.

Then there was the pollution in the harbor and waterways that the Coastal Conservation League alluded to. The cruise ships had strict standard and were not polluting.

The mayor again declared that cruise ship passenger numbers were easily “digestible” by the city when you considered the total number of tourist that visit Charleston.

He also was happy with the agreement with the State Ports Authority regarding the limits on cruise ship visits and size. He noted that the Ports Authority is a state agency and not a private corporation.

Newsome defended vigorously the decision to locate the new terminal at the northern end of Union Pier. He said the Columbus Street terminal was very important. It had the deepest water and its “roll off-roll on” operation servicing BMW largely was very efficient, possibly the most efficient on the east coast.

There were railway lines running through the Columbus Street wharf area. To move the cruise ship terminal to the north end of the Columbus Street wharf, as suggested by some, would compromise the efficiency of the wharf.

The selling outright of the Union Pier property was not an option the State Ports Authority would consider. Newsome said that some in the Ports Authority would have preferred to keep Union Pier as wholly cargo.

The Ports Authority was not in a position to give it up and locate the cruise ship terminal elsewhere.

One of Newsome's most compelling points was that codification of the Ports Authority’s voluntary agreement with the city to restrict cruise ship operations would have a negative impact on the Ports Authority’s bond rating: The Ports Authority must function as a self-funding entity and would not be able to do so if its bond rating were lowered as a result of such a codification.

Zitofsky told the forum that the valuation of the Union Pier property came in at about $3.28 million an acre. This places a value on the whole Union Pier property (71 acres) of about $230 million. A flyer distributed by the Coastal Conservation League states that the Dover Kohl plan “generates $100 and $130 million to the Ports Authority in raw land value.”

Warwick Jones is a resident of Charleston and has been involved with a number of area organizations, including the Charleston County Greenbelt Advisory Board and the Preservation Society of Charleston.


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