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Historic Charleston Foundation

An encouraging outcome of the “Delicate Balance” forum
A task force to be formed to observe and coordinate plans
Warwick Jones

We had low expectations for the forum held last night and sponsored by the Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF). The aim was noble - to generate discussion and a plan to preserve the historic ambience of the City and its quality of life in the face of major developments proposed on the eastern side of the Peninsula. We expected a series of soothing platitudes and high minded objectives from the speakers that would ultimately have little impact on restraining the City in allowing developments that many of us find threatening.

It may well be that out fears are founded. But last night’s forum was highly encouraging. We left with a feeling of optimism, and indeed pride. Institutions and citizens are acting to preserve the well known qualities of the City. They will not be ignored. Encouraging was the agreement of the speakers, who included Mayor Riley, that a task force be formed, to play a role in coordinating and observing the shaping of the developments. But most encouraging was the attendance which well exceeded the 300 seat capacity of the auditorium. The strong applause, and sometimes the absence, given to some of the points made by speakers, indicated a strong concern of citizens.

The title given to the forum was appropriately “A Delicate Balance”. The speakers were Winslow Hastie of the HCF, Mayor Riley, Dana Beach of the Coastal Conservation League, Kathy Hill of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Hank Holliday hotelier and principal of the group managing the City market, James Newsome, President of the State Ports Authority, and Charles Rhoden, President of the Neighborhood Consortium. Each spoke for 5 minutes and then the panel was asked to address questions posed by the HCF. The final half hour or so of the forum was open to questions from the audience.

Mr.Hastie made the opening presentation by defining the plans that were under way or being considered – the Cal/Cooper Plan of the City. Union Pier, Ansonborough Field, the City Market, the renovation of the Guillard Auditorium. Of the Union Pier Plan, he noted that of the 65 acres owned by the SPA, about 10 would be dedicated to the new terminal and the remainder to some form of future development.

Mayor Riley followed and stated that Charleston was a special place and vowed to keep it so. The plans, to be discussed in the forum, raised legitimate questions and the creation of a task force was a “good idea”. He got a laugh from the audience when he said there is an “elephant in the room. You can’t get to Harris Teeter on a Saturday morning when there is a cruise ship in town”. This would be taken care of.

The other panel members spoke largely of issues with which they were closely related.
Mr. Beach spoke strongly about the impact of cruise ships on the environment and the negative impact they had on some other cities. Celebrity and Carnival, the two companies planning to operate out of Charleston had poor records of compliance with pollution controls. The City needed to enact and enforce strong pollution controls, and to regulate the size of cruise ships visiting Charleston, the number of passengers and visits. He received strong applause from the audience.

Ms. Hill spoke of the changes in the city over the last 20 years or so and the importance of tourism. She was armed with a lot of statistics but they were given so little screen time that it was impossible to assess them. In summary, it seemed that visits to Charleston may be steady or down on last year, but the City was doing well relative to the rest of the County

Mr. Holliday noted the role of the HCF, the Preservation Society, the Neighborhood Associations, the BAR and others in preserving the quality of life in the City. He acknowledged the problem of maintaining the quality with the challenges of growth and the plans under discussion. He noted the very adverse impact of cruise ships on Key West where he maintained a residence. He also said that the resuscitation of the City market was a great challenge. One of the challenges was dealing with the hundreds of vendors each of which had a clear but different vision for its future!

Mr. Newsome spoke of the Union Pier development, perhaps potentially the most concerning of the plans under discussion. He could not give details of the plan as it was still being shaped with the gathering of views from citizens and other interested entities. But he certainly indicated that the SPA was aware of the concerns and that these would be addressed. He noted that the economic benefit to Charleston was estimated at $250,000 per cruise ship visit.

Mr. Rhoden noted that the neighborhoods of the Peninsula had concerns but they differed amongst the neighborhoods. The area “below Broad” was fully built out so there was little worry about new developments. This differed with Ansonborough and Wraggborough whose residents were concerned about new developments, particularly new hotels. He spoke of a need to coordinate all of the plans with the Comprehensive Plan of the City and the imperative need for a traffic study to measure the total impact of all of the plans now under consideration.

Questions were then put to the panel. These and some extracts of responses were;
Q. How will the quality of life for citizens and visitors be changed by the proposed plans?
Riley. “All changes should have a favorable impact on the districts”. “Make decisions for citizens’ good”. The present SPA property is a wall between us and the harbor. The proposed development will open up views from E Bay Street to the harbor.
Beach. “The willingness for us to set limits is key to success”.

Q. What solutions are in place for easing vehicle and pedestrian traffic on the Peninsula?
Cal/Cooper Plan a great concept but traffic flow along East Bay, Concord and Washington Streets needs to be studied
Hill. More street signage is necessary. DASH should be expanded to cut car usage.
Mayor. Union Pier development and new roads within will take pressure off East Bay Street

Q. Outlook for economic growth?
“Another hotel should not be built on the Peninsula” (very strong applause) “unless I build it” (anticlimactic silence). If the three large hotels that the City approved were built it would have been a “calamity” for the local industry and its profitability presently. The economic climate at present was a “struggle”. To the HCF, the Preservation Society, the CCL, the Neighborhood Associations and citizens, “For gosh sake be engaged, be heard, stay involved”
Mayor “No new hotels for now”.

Q. Why cruise ships in Charleston?
Main reason is economic. Benefit is $250,000 a visit. “Big ships are not appropriate for Charleston”. “SPA is committed to be good neighbor”.
Hastie. Codify one boat at a time, and limits on the size of boats and number of passengers
Mayor. “We will codify”

Q Do you support the establishment of a task force?

In an effort to limit the forum to 2 hours, there was time for only 8 questions from the audience. Some were inappropriate though interesting with one attendee noting the large investment residents had made in historic houses and their upkeep. As these houses are the main draw of tourists, why not a tax break for owners? Out of the City’s control, said the Mayor. What could be done about the disappearing gardens on the Peninsula other attendee noted? So many properties were being split up for development at the expense of gardens. This was detracting from the appeal of the City. Another speaker noted the lack of green space on the Peninsula and the strong need for more. Could some of the funds derived from tour ships be used to create more green space?

But what of the Task Force?
The major question we would ask relates to the proposed Task Force. Who will define its duties and responsibilities, who will be the members and how will they be chosen? The short answer is the Mayor. This is logical but concerning. Considering the nature of most of the City Boards and Commissions, the members will be supporters of the Mayor. And as viewers of this site will have noted, we question sometimes whether members serve citizens or the Mayor. But we draw encouragement from all of the speakers last night and the strong participation of citizens. We hope that the Mayor appoints representatives of the preservation societies, the CCL, and most importantly, the neighborhood associations. From the mood of the audience last night, it might be the only way that citizens feel comfortable about the deliberations and conclusions of the proposed task force.

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