After a nearly four-hour meeting with more than 70 public comments from residents who were overwhelmingly opposed to an application for a high-density Planned Unit Development on the South Carolina Ports Authority’s nearly 70-acre waterfront property on Concord Street, the Charleston City Planning Commission voted to defer a recommendation to council for 30 days.
Residents came out in full force, with more than 250 people packing the South Carolina Ports Authority’s passenger cruise terminal Wednesday night to air their concerns about the development, its related zoning designation and how quickly the application is moving.
The latest application calls for 24 mixed-use buildings of varying heights, some seven stories tall, comprising hotels, residences and commercial spaces. There would be five acres of public green space along the water, with walking bridges over a small carved-out canal and a pedestrian mall surrounding the Rice Mill landmark. There would be a minimum of 367 units dedicated to affordable housing.
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The current site is mostly abandoned warehouses and other industrial buildings. The Ports Authority is selling the land, which is located between the Customs House and the Ansonborough neighborhood, after deciding not to renew Carnival Cruise Line’s home port contract.
Residents voice concerns
Before putting the property up for sale, the Ports Authority is seeking to attach a planned unit development, a type of master plan that would guide development for whichever developer purchases the land. The current plan was created by Lowe, a private real estate company contracted by the Ports Authority to do property entitlements. Public meetings and public workshops about the development were held starting in December of last year. Lowe submitted a nearly 400-page document to city staff outlining stipulations and requirements for the planned unit development.
Despite city staff making recommendations to slightly scale back density, residents opposed to the application expressed concerns about the height, architectural design, the number of hotels that would be built, the density of the development, parking and traffic flow concerns and lack of green space for the public to enjoy, among other points.
Just 10 residents spoke in favor of the application — many from the local business and real estate community — stating that affordable housing and workforce housing built into the development was a move in the right direction and that green space would open up public access to the waterfront, something not enjoyed today.
Barbara Melvin, CEO of the Ports Authority, kicked off the meeting with a lengthy presentation about the Planned Unit Development’s evolution, stating that the port made changes from its earlier application to address more greenspace and lowered building heights based on citizen feedback. She noted the plan includes renovating the passenger terminal as a public space venue as well as adding a civic center to the site.
A cost analysis states that it would cost $276 million in infrastructure costs to develop the green space under the existing application, according to Melvin.
‘We expect (the plan) to change and evolve’
The Ports Authority is seeking a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) and Municipal Improvement District (MID) on the property, in which the developer would front infrastructure costs in lieu of city and county tax payments until the site is built out and collect payments from property owners for continued maintenance on the property.
“We expect (the plan) to change and evolve,” Melvin said.
Following public comments, two commissioners, Jimmy Bailey and Sunday Lempesis, said they were opposed to the application and were prepared to vote to not recommend; however, the majority of the commissioners voted to defer in order to consider all public comments.
The commission noted that in addition to the speakers at the meeting, they received more than 500 comments sent online. The Historic Charleston Foundation has been publicly opposed and citizens representing other non-profit organizations, including the Coastal Conservation League and Charleston Moves, spoke against the application at the meeting.
Commission members will hold another meeting in approximately 30 days to make a recommendation to council either in favor of or opposed to the planned unit development as well as a recommendation to zone the site as a City Center, which would allow for the high-density development.
As the applicant, Melvin allowed the commission additional time if needed to schedule the next meeting for consideration during the July 4 holiday. That meeting time and date will be announced as soon as possible. It will ultimately be up to the Charleston City Council to approve or deny.