Jonathan Tourtellot’s take on the controversial Union Pier rehabilitation was likely indicative of the hundreds of neighborhood resident at a forum on Monday.
Today, the State Ports Authority will kickoff the first phase of the Union Pier project, renovating a warehouse on site for its new cruise terminal. Later plans call for opening roughly 37 acres of the port site to the public, creating new blocks of homes, shops, and businesses, public parks, and new waterfront views currently blocked by port facilities.
“I’m not 100 percent in agreement with what you’re doing, but I’m 90 plus,” said Tourtellot, the founding director of the Center for Sustainable Destinations and a panelist at the forum hosted by the Historic Charleston Foundation.
Like Tourtellot, local preservation groups, conservationists, and downtown neighborhood leaders have called for the city to place limits and regulations on the cruise industry. Everyone on the panel last night that wasn’t involved in the project seemed to have one piece of advice for Charleston Mayor Joe Riley: get promises by the Ports Authority and cruise companies in writing. But he wasn’t listening.
Instead, Riley angrily defended Charleston’s cruise business, pinning his re-election on his ability to convince the public that the industry doesn’t need city oversight. He called the existing cruise numbers, including more than 80 ships this year, “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. Riley was absolutely dismissive. “This is a city,” he said, noting the importance of a diverse economy that includes the port. “This Key West business is ridiculous.”
Tourtellot argued that the city needs to get the Ports Authority to make its voluntary cap of 104 ships a year official. He wasn’t the only one with advice.
John Norquist, president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, urged Riley to get it in writing and argued that the city and the ports authority go back to the drawing board to tweak the plan and find something that addresses neighborhood concerns.
He singled out the large surface 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.”
Economic consultant Harry Miley told Riley that his main concern was that the public benefit of this project won’t be materializing until phase two, when the Ports Authority sells off the lower 37 acres of the port site for redevelopment. “It doesn’t appear that enough thought has been given to the rest of the plan,” Miley said when looking beyond the cruise terminal.
His point is one that hasn’t really been given enough consideration. For nearly a decade, the ports authority has sat on its massive unused real estate on Daniel Island while it waits for the market to turn around. There’s no reason to expect it will move any faster to sell its Union Pier real estate, particularly considering the recent failure of other large industrial redevelopments like Magnolia and Promenade.
But Riley and the Ports Authority continue to stand arm-and-arm. What may be most concerning is a bizarre double speak from each of them. When Riley needs to dismiss the impact of the cruise ships, he’ll point to numbers showing it accounts for such 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 businesses couldn’t survive without cruise ship dollars.
The arguments from Ports Authority President and CEO Jim Newsome may be even more worrisome. He’ll say 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 it couldn’t grow the cruise business, suggesting we will be revisiting that number 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, ‘Oooh, look, there’s a cruise ship here.'”