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Port Expansion Sparks Debate in Charleston

Carnival Fantasy cruise ship shown at port, against a Charleston, South Carolina skyline
Charleston regulates the height, mass, and scale of new construction to help preserve its skyline of historic church steeples. Preservationists claim that due to its height, the Carnival Fantasy cruise ship, seen here at port, should be subject to city ordinances. Dana Beach

In a city that banks on its historic character, the expansion and modernization of a passenger cruise port is provoking debate—and lawsuits.

March 19, 2013—Charleston takes its historic charm seriously. Homeowners who live in the historic downtown must obtain city approval to repaint their homes—even when it’s the same color. But a few years ago, the establishment of the city as a home port for Carnival Cruise Lines—meaning cruises on that line begin and end in Charleston rather than just stopping in the city as a “port of call”—has altered the landscape of the historic port town.

Now the South Carolina Ports Authority is planning to replace its aging cruise pier with an expanded, $35-million terminal to be built inside a nearby abandoned warehouse. The project promises to improve access for passengers and may eventually include the redevelopment of 35 acres of waterfront land.

But preservationists and environmental groups have criticized the proposal as a step toward expanding the city’s cruise business beyond what it can accommodate. A series of legal challenges from a coalition of environmental and preservation groups is trying to slow the port’s progress toward a new cruise terminal.

“Charleston has always been a port city; no one is trying to eliminate cruise ships from Charleston,” says Carrie Agnew, the executive director of Charleston Communities for Cruise Control, or C4, a 400-member group founded in July 2011 to, according to the organization’s website, promote the idea of balancing cruise ship activity with the quality of life for Charleston residents. “The concern is before the new terminal is built, now that we are a home port to a cruise ship, the influx of several thousand people several times a week is overwhelming the city,” Agnew says. “It directly impacts the quality of life.” 

 From an abandoned warehuse, rendering of a proposed new cruise terminal in Charleston, South Carolina

The proposed new cruise terminal in Charleston would refurbish
an abandoned 100,000 sq ft warehouse. South Carolina Ports

The recent mishap with the Carnival Triumph, which lost power and left passengers stranded at sea for days, as well as problems with the backup generator on a Carnival Dream ship last week that resulted in passengers having to be flown home, have given the cruise industry a black eye, and some ports have spent millions to upgrade their cruise ports to lure in new business, only to have cruise operators bail out. In the case of Charleston, opposition to the proposed port basically comes down to two main issues: pollution and capacity.

With respect to pollution, C4, along with the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League, argue that when ships—any ships—are idling at the dock while passengers are off exploring the city, they’re polluting the air. “Not only are we breathing it, it settles onto ceiling fans [and] porches—it’s hard to clean,” says Agnew. And because of the historic nature of the homes, she adds, “I can’t just go out and power wash my house.”

Opponents want Carnival specifically to be required to connect its ship to a source of shore power so that engines aren’t running while in port, which Agnew estimates would cost the ports authority roughly $3 to $5 million and require Carnival to retrofit its ship at a cost of roughly $1 million.

But Allison Skipper, the public relations manager for the ports authority, says new environmental standards will make connecting to shore power unnecessary. Currently, when any ship comes within 200 mi of the American coasts, an area designated as the North American Emissions Control Area, it is required to switch from cheap bunker fuel to a more ecofriendly fuel that has only 1 percent sulfur content. By 2015, the sulfur content will be reduced to 0.1 percent. Skipper says that the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that this will reduce cargo ship emissions by 80 percent.

 Rendering of the new cruise terminal, displaying its entrance

Designers of the new cruise terminal in Charleston are attempting
to make the building fit into the city’s historic character but still
stand out. The exterior will be modernized with light-colored
metals, and the lower concrete walls will be clad with tabby
stucco, a common material in Charleston. South Carolina Ports

Katie Zimmerman, the program director for the Coastal Conservation League, notes that even when a ship is idling at port with only one engine on, there are still environmental problems. “If they are burning that cleanest fuel, the amount of sulfur dioxide from a Carnival Fantasy [ship] from one day in port is the equivalent of 34,000 trucks idling,” Zimmerman says.

The second issue for Charleston is how many ships may dock at the port in the future. The ports authority has verbally committed to not allow more than 104 ships a year—an average of two a week. This is the upper limit environmentalists are willing to accept, but they want the commitment to be made legally binding, and some raise concerns that the ports and cruise ships have an easy way to raise the limit whenever they want.

Skipper counters, “If for any reason there is a desire by the industry to bring additional cruise ships here—which we don’t think will be the case—we have outlined a year-long process to hear the concerns.” The authority contends that the number of cruise ships that have docked at Charleston over the past few years—a number she estimates at 80 to 90—is about all that the market will bear.

Nevertheless, lawsuits have been filed in an attempt to slow the project, the first of which was filed on the behalf of the Coastal Conservation League by the Southern Environmental Law Center against Carnival Cruise Lines. It alleges that the Fantasy-class cruise ship that has its home port in Charleston violates existing city ordinances. In truth, the complaints about cruise ships extend to both Carnival and the port-of-call cruise lines, but the lawsuit was filed against Carnival because it now has the largest presence in Charleston. (The Carnival Fantasy holds around 2,000 passengers and more than 900 crew members.)

“The entire intent behind that was not to get rid of cruise ships but to show to the city council that certain cruise operations are able to be regulated the city government,” says Zimmerman.

 Aerial view rendering of the new Charleston cruise terminal

The South Carolina Ports Authority contends its plan for a new
cruise terminal will allow the city to beautify the waterfront and
improve access between the waterfront and downtown. South
Carolina Ports Authority

The suit wound up in the South Carolina Supreme Court, which appointed a circuit court judge to hear the matter and offer a recommendation; the judge dropped all allegations of the suit except one, that the cruise line represents a nuisance. The Supreme Court has yet to make a final ruling on whether it agrees.

The other two suits dealt with efforts to appeal some of the state and federal permits that the pier development has received. The first permit was granted by the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control despite, Zimmerman says, hundreds of citizens submitting evidence as to the project’s potential negative impacts. That matter is being appealed in the state’s administrative law court. The third suit, filed in federal court, alleges that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded the project a federal permit without citizen input. That matter is also still pending.

During the last decade, the number of cruise ships that call Charleston their home port has increased—there were 47 total ships in 2003, 57 in 2004 (the highest total of that decade), and 33 in 2009. In 2010, after Carnival’s arrival, the number increased to 67—and to 88 in 2011 and 84 last year.

So the $35-million pier project aims to replace the aging terminal and provide swifter access for the increased number of passengers embarking and disembarking, as well as to modernize security features and provide more parking. The ports authority conducted 100 meetings in the community and eventually developed the Union Pier Concept Plan, which would move the pier about 2,000 ft from its current location to a 100,000 sq ft shuttered warehouse, which would be updated. The plan also called for the redevelopment of the waterfront.

The warehouse is “strictly utilitarian,” says Maureen Kussler, LEED AP BD+C, an architect with CH2M HILL, which is overseeing the project from its Palm Beach Gardens, Florida office. “We’re trying to turn it into something that’s a bit of a showpiece for the city and the cruise industry.” The building’s wharf deck juts out over the water; the plan is to leave in place the structural framing and poured concrete walls—which extend upward 8 ft—while recladding the building and adding such energy-efficient upgrades as low-VOC interior finishes, water-saving plumbing, and energy-efficient mechanical systems.

Kussler says the design and engineering team are trying to make the renovated structure complementary to the city’s historic character but still able to stand out on its own. To achieve that, the exterior will be modernized with light-color metals, and the lower concrete walls will be clad with tabby stucco, a common material in Charleston that uses oyster shells in the aggregate and lends a warmer quality to the material.

Although the pier was designed with the Fantasy class ship in mind, Kussler says the new terminal could accommodate a larger number of passengers without any major structural improvements. Critics contend that this means that the cruise industry could potentially operate two such ships at once.

The impact of the cruise ship industry on the Charleston economy is also a matter of debate. Boosters of the project, including the city’s mayor, argue that the new pier will enhance the city’s economy. A study commissioned by the ports authority in 2010 estimated that 17,000 passengers on 16 port-of-call vessels spent an average of $43.42 per person, while the 53 home-port journeys of Charleston’s Carnival Fantasy involved 94,920 passengers who spent an average of $66.31 each. Total direct spending from both groups was estimated at $5.5 million. Meanwhile, crewmembers were estimated to spend an additional $2,606,575, and cruise line companies were contributing an estimated $14,143,535 in direct spending a year.

However, another report, prepared for the Historic Charleston Foundation, questions the methodology of the ports authority report, as well as the spending habits of home-port ship passengers. Fantasy cruises leave Charleston at 4 PM, cruise to the Caribbean, and return days later at 8 AM. “We doubt that each of the nonlocal passengers will be in Charleston long enough to spend $66,” the report’s authors note. “We believe that many of the Carnival customers drive to Charleston in time for the 4 PM departure and drive home as soon as they debark at 8 AM. Therefore, the figure for total direct expenditures seems inflated.”

“People on port-of-call ships who come to Charleston are more inclined to be spending money than someone who is essentially using Charleston as a parking lot,” says Agnew.

It’s a common assumption that the industry is moving toward larger and larger ships—and preservationists are clearly concerned that a coming class of behemoths will overwhelm Charleston. (The Carnival Fantasy is 855 ft in length.) But Alison Turner, a spokesperson for the trade group Cruise Lines International Association, notes that in the next two years, no new ships will be delivered to cruise lines that are any larger than existing vessels. And the biggest of the big are simply not coming to smaller ports like Charleston. “That’s not where those ships are ever going to want to go,” she says. “That’s not what those ships are designed for.”

Still, there’s plenty of skepticism. “With the deepening of the Panama Canal, lord knows what will be porting here,” says Agnew. “It’s a can of worms we would like to put a lid on.”


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