Despite numerous community meetings, hundreds of public comments and a new task force of business and city leaders trying to figure out the best way to redevelop Union Pier Terminal, a four-word phrase in a decades-old document could dictate what will happen to some of downtown Charleston’s most valuable real estate.
The language is buried in a Dec. 26, 1957, deed between Southern Railway Co. — a predecessor to Norfolk Southern — and the state of South Carolina.
At the time, Southern Railway was giving the state several parcels between Society and Calhoun streets that are now part of the Union Pier footprint. In return, it wanted a promise that the property wouldn’t wind up in private hands.
Specifically, the deed restriction calls for the property — roughly 14 acres — to be used “for exclusively public purposes.”
Forever, the deed states.
The State Ports Authority, owner and operator of the Port of Charleston, says it has known all along about the restriction and the limitation on land usage. Although it targets a small portion of Union Pier, the maritime agency said it “has always been part of the master planning process” to convert the site from its current use as a cruise ship terminal to a world-class collection of homes, hotels and public parks.
The SPA’s original redevelopment plan, submitted to the city in January, didn’t mention of the deed restriction. It showed the potential for “all land uses” on the parcels in question as part of a mixed-use zoning that would allow shops and offices, hotels, condominiums and parks.
Now, it appears that last option could be the only one available for those parcels — unless the restriction is lifted.
“Through ongoing communications about this property, we anticipate it will likely become a future park, though this will be determined by the property owners and the ongoing planning process,” a ports authority spokeswoman said last week.
A Norfolk Southern Corp. spokeswoman declined to comment on any negotiations with the SPA or whether the Atlanta-based railroad would be willing to cancel the deed restriction and, if so, how much that might cost.
“As a general practice, we are unable to comment on real estate negotiations,” said Alyssa Thomason, senior communications manager.
The SPA also declined to comment on any possible discussions to deal with the the deed restriction. But it said the two sides “have a longstanding partnership and great working relationship that keeps freight moving in South Carolina.”
The Union Pier proposal submitted in January is no longer in play because opposition to its dense mix of hotels and condominiums forced the SPA to pull it from the table.
A new planning process is underway by the Joseph P. Riley Center for Livable Communities at the College of Charleston. That group has said it will seek to balance public input and the wishes of environmental and historic preservation groups with the SPA’s need to make money off Union Pier’s ultimate sale so the maritime agency can pay for future cargo terminal and infrastructure needs.
It’s estimated the nearly 70-acre Union Pier site along Charleston Harbor could fetch as much as $400 million. Los Angeles-based Lowe, the developer hired to draw up the original plan, has first dibs on the site, but the SPA has said it will market the property to potential purchasers worldwide.
Whatever plan ultimately develops, the deed restriction on key parcels remains — at least for now.
This isn’t the first time the SPA has run into a deed restriction on land it wanted to sell.
Back in 2016, the authority put its former Concord Street headquarters just south of Union Pier on the block. Charleston County had given some of the land to the SPA, and the deed had a reversionary clause that called for the property to go back to the county if the port no longer needed it.
Negotiations ensued and the county was paid an undisclosed amount to resolve the issue. Lowe, the winning bidder for the property, is now building The Cooper luxury hotel at the site next to Waterfront Park.
And several more Union Pier parcels totaling about 8.5 acres were once subject to reversionary clauses in deeds dating to the 1940s, when the city gave the SPA prime waterfront land shortly after the maritime agency was created by the General Assembly. Charleston City Council voted to cancel all of them in 1994.
No pressure was used in that deal, Don Welch, then the executive director of the SPA, told The Post and Courier at the time.
“It was just a matter of cooperation; being a good neighbor and citizen,” Welch said, according to the newspaper report.
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