Consider the fable of the mice and elephants. Seems that elephants trampled on some nests of mice on the way through the forest. So some brave mice approached the elephant king, and asked for his group to take a different path. He agreed. Some time later, the elephants got trapped in nets of hunters. And to the rescue came the mice, who gnawed through the nets and freed the elephants. The moral, of course, is that a true friend helps a friend in need.

So a local elephant, the S.C. State Ports Authority, has for months been stomping around with big development plans for about 70 prime acres on Union Pier, a tract given by the city of Charleston to the port in 1947 for use for shipping. A new deal came in 1994, and the port was supposed to develop the land responsibly pretty quickly. Didn’t happen. But in recent months, it woke, wanting to rush through a massive new project including hundreds of more hotel rooms, 1,600 housing units and commercial space on block after block of big buildings that would destroy the character of downtown Charleston.

The mice of advocacy groups and neighbors haven’t liked all of this rigamarole. They’ve been organizing and protesting for months. A couple of weeks back at a public hearing, more than 250 people showed up and gave intelligent, passionate comments on why the port’s plan is bad for Charleston. 

Then a funny thing happened. Just when many people felt something was being rammed down their throats, the elephant listened to the mice, seeming to remember that Charleston is home to both. In a surprise move, the Ports Authority hit the pause button for a year and, more importantly, said it would look to the city of Charleston and planners at the College of Charleston to lead a community-driven process to plan Union Pier’s future.

“The same themes kept emerging,” SPA President and CEO Barbara Melvin said in a hastily called press conference June 16. “We heard the calls to slow down the process and gather even more community input. We heard the need for this process to be city-led with third-party experts weighing in on every aspect of the proposal. We heard the desire for less density and height and more green space. We heard that future development must address resiliency concerns, traffic demands and affordable housing.”

The port is to be congratulated for listening. We’ve long called for a slowdown — and even the return of the Union Pier land to the city to develop. Thank you. This is a good compromise, for now.

But this new openness doesn’t mean the good fight is over to keep the character of this new Charleston neighborhood to be like other areas. As community groups, citizens, the city, planners and the port collaborate, let’s keep in mind that the scale and size of whatever becomes of Union Pier needs to be responsible. Let’s use the next year to create something that’s appropriate for Charleston. That means no massive buildings, fewer (if any) hotels, more affordable housing and commercial spaces that embrace the live-work-play development ethic.

We’ve got room to dream. We’ve got time to keep our elephant and the mice happy. Let’s embrace this opportunity.

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