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Cruise Ship Forum

For information, or intimidation?
City and SPA yield no ground
Warwick Jones

If the purpose of last night’s “Community Forum” was to bring closer the opposing sides of the cruise ship and the Union Pier plan issue, it failed. But we expect that the Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF), the sponsor of the forum held no such optimistic hope. It is 18 months since the Foundation’s last forum – “A Delicate Balance”. It was out of this forum that a Task Force was formed to oversee the developments on the Peninsula and which included Union Pier. But the issue over cruise ships and the Union Pier had grown large and in HCF’s view, another forum was needed to consider it.

If the purpose of last night’s “Community Forum” was to bring closer the opposing sides of the cruise ship and the Union Pier plan issue, it failed. But we expect that the Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF), the sponsor of the forum held no such optimistic hope. It is 18 months since the Foundation’s last forum – “A Delicate Balance”. It was out of this forum that a Task Force was formed to oversee the developments on the Peninsula and which included Union Pier. But the issue over cruise ships and the Union Pier had grown large and in HCF’s view, another forum was needed to consider it.

We also think that the forum was a form of intimidation. Relatively recently, the HCF dropped off its fence-sitting position and joined the critics of the plan, or at least some aspects of it. Ms. Kitty Robinson, Executive Director last night mentioned that the Foundation was considering it legal options. And if we did not get the wording exactly right, we note that the moderator last night was from the firm of White and Smith which is undertaking for HCF “an initial assessment of legal alternatives for balancing quality of life and cruise activities in Charleston.”

The Physicians Hall auditorium was filled to capacity with an estimated 400 or so in attendance. It seemed that a third were wearing stickers supporting the port, a third wearing stickers opposed and the remaining sans stickers.

Mayor Riley and Jim Newsome, the CEO of the State Ports Authority were the most important members of the panel and of course were the advocates for the existing plans. They also had the unqualified support of Jaquelin Robertson, founding partner of Cooper Robertson and Partners, architects who drew up the Union Pier Plan. The other 5 members of the panel generally had lots of praise for Mayor Riley, Mr. Robertson, Charleston, and for the Union Pier Plan. But there could be some improvements to the latte, they said. Mr. Andrew Zitofsky of Dover, Kohl & Partners represented the extreme view, understandably as his firm was retained by the Coastal Conservation League (CCL) to draw up an alternative plan.

For those of us who have followed the cruise ship issue closely, there was little new said at last night’s forum. Members of the panel were asked a series of question by the moderator and answers were subject to time restraints. But notwithstanding this seeming limitation, we think enough opportunity in the 2 hour forum was given to each panelist to express his views on any aspect of the issue. There might have been more time for answers, however, if the moderator had spent less time crafting his questions. After Mr. Newsome answered the first question, the moderator chided him for not answering the question. We suspect that Mr. Newsome was not sure what the question was as it was wrapped up in so many words.

Despite the moderators attempt to quell it, the audience clapped for the responses they liked. Unquestionably the loudest was for Mayor Riley. He was asked about the proper role of the City in dealing with such issues before it. He responded with “to listen and seek the truth” He referred to some of the statements made by the CCL and which were untrue. For example there was the photo CCL showed of a dead whale on the bow of a cruise ship. The cruise ship did not kill the whale; it had been dead for 5 days. Then there was the pollution in the harbor and waterways that CCL alluded to. The cruise ships had strict standard and were not polluting.

The Mayor again declared that the cruise ship passenger numbers were easily “digestible” by the City when you considered the total number of tourist that visited Charleston. He also was happy with the agreement with the SPA regarding the limits on cruise ship visits and size. He noted that the SPA is a State agency and not a private corporation.

Mr. Newsome defended vigorously the decision to locate the new terminal at the northern end of Union Pier. He said the Columbus Street terminal was very important. It had the deepest water and its 'roll off-roll on' operation servicing BMW largely, was very efficient, possibly the most efficient on the east coast. There were railway lines running through the Columbus Street wharf area. To move the Cruise ship terminal to the north end of the Columbus Street wharf, as suggested by some, would compromise the efficiency of the wharf.

The selling outright of the Union Pier property was not an option the SPA would consider. Mr. Newsome said that some in the SPA would have preferred to keep Union Pier as wholly cargo. The SPA was not in a position to give it up and locate the Cruise ship terminal elsewhere. It was interesting to hear that the SPA had made a Discounted Cash Flow evaluation of selling the Union Pier property and of the proposed Cruise ship terminal. There was little difference between the two studies, he said.

One of Mr. Newsome's most compelling points was that codification of the SPA's voluntary agreement with the City to restrict cruise--ship operations would have a negative impact on the SPA's bond rating: The SPA must function as a self-funding entity and would not be able to do so if its bond rating were lowered as a result of such a codification. We think the ripple effect of such a financial imposition should be obvious even to the most ardent proponents of codification.

Mr. Zitofsky told the forum that the valuation of the Union Pier property came in at about $3.28 million an acre. This places a value on the whole Union Pier property (71 acres) of about $230 million. A flyer distributed by CCL states that the Dover Kohl plan “generates $100 and $130 million to the SPA in raw land value.”

The flyer also had a drawing of the Union Pier as it would appear developed, presumably with the development it proposes. It was not an impressive picture in our view and there was no abundance of green space.

Mr. Zitofsky also suggested that the existence of a large parking lot near the proposed Cruise ship terminal would do nothing to enhance real estate values of the part of Union pier that the SPA proposed to develop. The terminal and cruise ships so close by would not enhance property values either, he and other panelists pointed out.

Mr. Jonathan Tourtellot, Founding Director of Center for Sustainable Destination told the forum that the cruise ship business has an upper limit. Why not lock it in, he asked, an inference that the City and the SPA should codify an agreement.

Mr. John Norquist, President and CEO of Congress for the New Urbanism and a former mayor of Milwaukee, noted that there often was controversy about new projects and many times they got sandbagged. He suggested that some agreement on issues might be found through improving the details of the plan, such as possibly considering an outlying parking lot with a shuttle for passengers who arrived for cruises in their own cars in order to free the parking portion of the plan for other purposes, and that the City and SPA work on similar details a little more.

Both Mr. Norquist and Mr. Tourtellot noted that the intense debate over cruise ships and the Union Pier development was a good thing. Citizens had a strong interest and pride in their City.

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