Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Cruise Ships in Charleston: Preservation versus Progress

Photo by Stuart Miles
By Ginger Williams
Charleston, South Carolina, has depended on its port for economic survival since the city was founded in 1670. Tall ships have given way to large container ships, but shipping is still one of Charleston’s largest industries. In recent years, tourism has surpassed shipping to become the city’s largest source of income. The cruise industry, in a way, combines the two. Large cruise ships deliver their cargo of tourists, eager to spend millions of dollars in the historic city’s shops and restaurants each year.
Downtown Charleston was a very different place only a few decades ago. Prostitution thrived on Market Street, King Street store fronts were empty, and the Riviera Theatre was showing pornography. In October 1942, the police raided Market Street in response to a recent decree by the U.S. Army banning all military personnel from the City of Charleston. They arrested 626 prostitutes. In 1947, Federal investigators cited five brothels still operating on Market Street. The Sinclair Service Station was operating on the southwestern corner of Meeting and Market Streets during the 1950’s, and it was not the typical service station. A patron could purchase a Coca-Cola for around twenty dollars and walk into the service bay. There, he would find an old Cadillac parked over a lift. A prostitute would then climb into the back seat of the car with the customer, and the lift would be raised by an attendant. After about ten minutes, the car would be lowered and the woman would service her next customer. By 1975, Market Street was still not considered a tourist attraction.
Things started to change in 1975 with the election of Joseph P. Riley, Jr. as mayor. Riley had a dream of revitalizing the city’s business district. He believed the key to Charleston’s success was increased tourism. The first step was to build a large hotel and convention center in the heart of the city’s dilapidated business district. In 1978, Riley announced a plan for what was then called the Charleston Center to be built on the block surrounded by Market, King, Hasell, and Meeting Streets. Some downtown residents welcomed the idea of breathing new life into a run-down area while others felt that a huge hotel would ruin the historic charm and character of the city.
It would be another eight years before the Charleston Place Hotel opened its doors. The original plan was for a fourteen-story building. It infuriated local neighborhood groups and preservationists who filed the first of several lawsuits against the City of Charleston to block construction of the massive building in 1978. The city paid over $100,000 in legal fees over the next two years, and, in 1980, an appeals court effectively ended any future challenges to the project. Preservationists were much more accepting of the final design, which was a better fit in the historic area than the original. It is eight stories tall in its center with a four-story perimeter. From the street level, it does not appear to tower over any surrounding buildings.
Since the Charleston Place Hotel opened on September 2, 1986, the upscale shops in its base level have attracted more high-end retail stores and boutiques along King and Market Streets. The property values have increased drastically, and the commercial district of downtown has become the center of Charleston’s thriving tourism industry. The hotel pays roughly $5.5 million in taxes each year and accommodates an average of 17,000 guests each month.  It has been instrumental in shaping the city into one of the top tourist destinations in the United States.
The city’s newest battle with local residents is over the cruise ship industry. The residents believe increased cruise ship traffic will ruin their quality of life. Currently only one cruise ship, the Carnival Fantasy, calls Charleston its home port. That ship carries more than 140,000 passengers per year. Her passengers are renting rooms in local hotels before their cruise sets sail and eating in local restaurants and shopping in local stores. Studies show that 98% of first time visitors to Charleston who are here to embark on a cruise say they will return to enjoy more of what the city has to offer. 70% were most impressed with Charleston’s history and architecture above all else. The cruise industry contributed $37 million to the local economy in 2010 and created more than 400 jobs in recent years.
Nonetheless, in June 2011, the Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association, the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, the Coastal Conservation League, and the Preservation Society of Charleston together sued Carnival Cruise Lines on the grounds that the cruise lines’ use of Union Pier is illegal under city zoning. It is also an attempt to stop the city from replacing the current, outdated cruise terminal with a larger one in the same area. A more aesthetically pleasing, larger terminal would attract more ships and more tourists. It means more money coming into the city, but it also means increased pedestrian traffic, which can be a nuisance to residents. Lawsuits are slowing the progress of constructing the new terminal, but the plan has been set in motion.
Why fight the cruise ships when we already have cargo ships? The cargo ships in Charleston and Georgetown generate $45 billion each year for South Carolina’s economy. Shipping has supported Charleston for hundreds of years. It is an industry that requires lots of space for thousands of containers, cranes, equipment, and the ships themselves. A cargo terminal is an eyesore. The huge cranes and filthy container ships block the beautiful view of the harbor.
The plan for the new cruise ship terminal is to build it in an area that is already being used for shipping. The city intends to demolish the enormous warehouse that is bordered by East Bay, Market, Concord, and Hasell Streets. The warehouse is currently being used as vehicle storage for the passengers of the Carnival Fantasy. The South Carolina Ports Authority is in the process of moving and expanding the cargo terminals. The terminal in the market area of the historic district that receives vehicle shipments is in the area chosen for the new cruise terminal. The cargo ships will be moved north to the Columbus Street terminal. The Wando Welch terminal is the largest container port in the area. It is currently being expanded and a new facility is being constructed at the former Navy Base.
The change will eliminate the need for container yards on the Charleston Peninsula and relocate approximately 200 cargo ship calls away from such a high tourist traffic area. It will also remove all freight trains from downtown. The new Union Pier would be beautiful.  According to the South Carolina Ports Authority, the waterfront area at the foot of Market Street would be open to the public and open a stretch of shoreline twice as long as Waterfront Park.
The Ansonborough residents, especially, should be happy to trade the hideous warehouse and shipping containers only blocks away from their homes for a park-like cruise terminal. Preservationists should be thrilled with the idea of making the historic fa├žade of the Bennett Rice Mill a focal point instead of being surrounded by the asphalt and chain link fence of the shipyard. The new terminal will revitalize a part of Charleston the same way the Charleston Place Hotel did twenty years ago.   

           



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