Kirkland Grant has a warning for Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. “The mayor needs to understand people are not happy and this is an election year,” says Grant, the president of the Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association.

The stakes couldn’t be more clear in the growing fight over the construction of a new cruise ship terminal downtown and a lack of regulations governing the cruise ship industry. Activists concerned about the environment and preservation of the city have been joined by residents worried about their quality of life — and they’re all challenging the State Ports Authority and, yes, Joe Riley.

The critics of the new terminal and Charleston’s busy cruise business are concerned about the throng of tourists the boats bring, as well as traffic headaches. They’re also worried about redevelopment plans at Union Pier, the fancy new home for cruise ships. And yet, even with all of these concerns, they seem to be getting nowhere with the mayor. “I don’t understand Mayor Riley’s position at all,” says Grant.

The mayor dismisses the scope of the criticism, stressing that only “some” residents are concerned about the SPA’s plans. But that “some” includes a growing list of prominent residents and organizations. The critics want tough standards on air emissions and discharges. The skeptics would just like to see the city grow a pair, put its foot down, and get the Ports Authority to put in writing its promise of a modest cruise schedule and new public waterfront access.

Rocking the Boat
In late 2009, with Carnival cruise ships on their way in the new year, the State Ports Authority launched a plan to renovate eight acres of its Union Pier downtown. With encouragement from the city and project designers, the SPA altered its plans. Cargo ships were moved further up the Cooper River, relocating the cruise terminal to the other end of Union Pier, with plans to renovate a warehouse near the city’s Maritime Center.

Today, the Union Pier area is a largely barren industrial site with a few warehouses and a lot of rusty chain-link fences gobbling up prize waterfront. “If I call this a cruise terminal, you realize I’m being an optimist,” SPA President and CEO Jim Newsome said last week at a community meeting on the Union Pier plans. He was standing in the 40-year-old building that is currently used for docking cruise ships, but his critique included the entire Union Pier property. “None of us are proud of what we have here today,” he added.

But many are concerned about the SPA’s sincerity when it comes to improving the site. Some argue that the cruise stop should be relocated to another port terminal, while those who support the new spot at Union Pier want a binding city review for the terminal, which is currently not required. They’d also like a better alternative than the nine-acre Walmart-style parking lot that the Ports Authority currently has planned for cruise passengers.

Advocates at the Historic Charleston Foundation and the environmental nonprofit Coastal Conservation League have begun calling for careful monitoring of Charleston’s cruise industry for a while now. Some residents have also noted soot on their patios and windows, claiming the cruise ships are culpable. But many downtown residents weren’t concerned until they saw the port’s redevelopment plans. Now it looks like the neighborhoods are ready to wrangle with the cruise ship business.

So far, Mayor Riley has angrily defended the industry and the State Ports Authority, while also claiming that the city has no right to limit the size of the ships or the frequency of cruise visits. And he hasn’t received much opposition from Charleston City Council.

While political opponents of both the mayor and council will likely be looking at campaign donations for any sign of cruise ship dollars, Riley and the other leaders are probably less concerned about filling their campaign coffers and more concerned about the 37 acres of the Union Pier property that the SPA is promising to sell for private development once the new terminal is complete. The new streets could mean an entirely new neighborhood of homes, shops, businesses, and public parks downtown. And it could open up waterfront views currently blocked by port buildings. But the SPA has never been an anxious seller of its unused properties and no one expects them to start now.

Residents of downtown neighborhoods, minus the support of their elected officials, are ready to brawl with the Ports Authority to protect their community. “If these people want to come to Charleston, then we should be preserving the part of Charleston that makes them want to come,” says Ansonborough resident Carrie Agnew.

When it comes to weighing the impact of cruise ships, some concerns should be left to the professionals. But for the other questions, it’s best to go to the neighborhoods.

“We decided we were going to leave the preservation aspects to the Historic Preservation Society and the pollution aspects to the Coastal Conservation League,” Agnew says. “We would focus on the impacts to our neighborhood, because it’s going to be in our neighborhood.”

Late last year, the Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association approved a resolution calling on the city to regulate the cruises just as they do every other tourist business, and to cap the number and size of ships docking in the harbor. In January, the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association made a similar resolution and added a suggestion that the cruise stop relocate up stream to the Columbus Street Terminal.

If Riley and the City Council aren’t swayed by the concerns of voters, perhaps they will be moved by the high-profile business owners who have entered the debate.

In a New York Times story last month, Steven Dopp, the president of Portwood Properties, the firm that owns the Francis Marion Hotel, proclaimed that the cruise-ship masses would damage Charleston’s reputation as a top-tier destination. “The scale of the ships and the number of people dumped on the street — it’s not what Charleston was or wants to be,” Dopp said.

In an opinion piece in The Post and Courier, nationally renowned Charleston chef Sean Brock of Husk and McCrady’s called for the city to do what other coastal communities have done. “Implementing reasonable limitations on the cruise industry does not impede or jeopardize any of the other hard-working people of our city,” Brock wrote. “To the contrary, everyone can agree that holding all businesses to a high standard benefits the entire community.”

The letter was also signed by several big names in Charleston’s hospitality industry, including Hank Holliday, a local hotelier and restaurateur who has worked closely with Mayor Riley to redevelop the City Market.

Another new ally may be the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which will be rolling out its picks for the most endangered cities in America next month; Charleston is on the short list because of the city’s reluctance to set cruise-ship standards. A polite letter from the group to Riley notifying him of their concerns was met with the kind of fiery response everyone seems to be getting from the mayor on this particular issue.

Feeling he wasn’t given a chance to argue his point, the mayor called the Trust’s plans “outrageous” and “very diminishing of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s reputation for thoughtfulness and truth in historic preservation matters.”

Riley argues that many of the concerns will be addressed in time. “The specific complaint about the cruise ships is the traffic,” he says, referring to the routine street closings around the City Market area when cruise ships dock. “That will be addressed with the new terminal.” He also argues that new federal standards on emissions will address most health concerns.

For the long-term issues, Riley tells the City Paper he’ll support a regular review of cruise-ship impacts once the new terminal is completed. He is also drafting an ordinance that would outline the city’s response if the State Ports Authority decides to abandon its voluntary cap of 104 ships a year. Per a promise by the SPA, the city has a year’s notice for any increase in order to gauge resident sentiment.

Of course, Riley argues that the quasi-state agency would still not be held to any city cap on cruise activity. But Katie Zimmerman, an environmentalist with the Coastal Conservation League, argues that local communities have created standards in other ports of call, denying city services to cruise companies that abuse their waters.

Regardless, Riley still believes the SPA, as a member of the downtown community, will act in the best interest of its neighbors and be responsive to concerns.

Expert Opinions
Last week, the controversy over the new cruise terminal devolved into a game of one-upmanship. The SPA announced late last month that it would be hosting its first design forum for the terminal May 10. Not long after, the Historic Charleston Foundation announced it would be hosting its own community forum a day earlier on May 9.

Riley, Newsome, and project designer Jaquelin Robertson agreed to participate in a panel at the HCF event, and they brought a posse. The SPA organized a pro-cruise rally out in front of the auditorium in the hour leading up to the event. Port employees held signs like “Jobs Over Snobs.” It’s a somewhat misleading statement considering the real crux of the argument against the SPA isn’t meant to sink the ships, but to move them elsewhere or to get the Ports Authority’s promises down on paper.

The mayor likely hoped to take the chance to address resident concerns. Instead, he received a very specific piece of advice from everyone on the panel: get these promises by the Ports Authority and cruise companies in writing.

Jonathan Tourtellot, the founding director of the Center for Sustainable Destinations, told the mayor, “I’m not 100 percent in agreement with what you’re doing, but I’m 90 plus.” Tourtellot’s reluctance came from a lack of solid assurances from the Ports Authority.

But the mayor wasn’t listening. Instead, Riley angrily defended Charleston’s cruise business, pinning his re-election on his ability to convince the public that they should trust the port as a good neighbor. Riley says the current cruise traffic — more than 80 ships in 2011 — “thoroughly digestible.”

And the mayor brushed aside concerns about the instability of the cruise industry and the impact large ships have on small cities, including allusions from Tourtellot about the negative impact cruise traffic has had on Key West, where a flood of cruise passengers seems to be driving away other tourists and changing the culture of the island. “This is a city,” Riley said, noting the importance of a diverse economy that includes the port. “This Key West business is ridiculous.”

John Norquist, former mayor of Milwaukee and president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, argued that the city and the ports authority should go back to the drawing board to tweak the plan and find something that addresses neighborhood concerns.

He singled out the large parking lot planned for the cruise terminal as a good starting point. “Surface parking lots are a bad idea,” Norquist said. “It’s the kind of detail that could make the project more amiable for neighbors.”

Columbia economic consultant Harry Miley, a former chairman of the state’s Board of Economic Advisors, said his main concern was that the public benefit of this project won’t be materializing until the Ports Authority sells off the lower 37 acres. “It doesn’t appear that enough thought has been given to the rest of the plan,” Miley said when looking beyond the cruise terminal.

For concerned citizens, there’s good reason to worry about whether that redevelopment will happen in our lifetime. The SPA has 1,300 acres on Daniel Island that is undeveloped more than a decade after the demise of the proposed Global Gateway port terminal. The General Assembly got so frustrated with the empty site, it passed a bill demanding that the SPA sell a 500-acre parcel by 2013. The SPA’s other property on the market, the Port of Port Royal near Beaufort, has gone through three prospective buyers since 2004. And then there’s the slow death of other major riverfront redevelopments in Charleston, including Promenade and Magnolia, that signal the challenges of a sale.

But Riley and the Ports Authority continue to stand arm-and-arm, while offering similarly contradictory assurances about the cruise business. When Riley needs to dismiss the impact of the cruise ships, he’ll point to numbers showing it accounts for a small percentage of the tourists downtown. But when he needs to prove its importance, he’ll point to business owner testimonials, no matter how small the boutique, to argue that stores and restaurants couldn’t survive without cruise-ship dollars.

The arguments from Newsome and SPA may be even more worrisome. Newsome says the Ports Authority is happy with its self-imposed limit of 104 ships a year, suggesting that number isn’t changing anytime soon. But when asked to codify that limit, Newsome argues that the authority’s lenders would be worried if the Ports Authority put arbitrary limits on its ability to grow, suggesting the SPA could be revisiting that cruise cap sooner rather than later.

One of the more interesting arguments for the cruise industry at Union Pier came from project designer Jaquelin Robertson, who suggested that the community had largely abandoned the maritime industries that have put Charleston on the map.

“I can’t imagine the Charleston waterfront without some active infrastructure,” he said. “The [Union Pier] master plan is richer for having the cruise terminal there.”

But Tourtellot pointed out that there are few tourists who would journey to historic Charleston to marvel at its modern cruise-ship business. “I’m a tourist,” he said, holding up his wallet to signal the money he planned to spend in Charleston. “I don’t know many of us who come to a city and say, ‘Ooh, look, there’s a cruise ship here.'”

Two important links: SPA’s Union Pier Plan | Don’t leave Charleston in your wake