Is this really Beaufort?

in Voices by

By MAXINE LUTZ

A string of proposals for large new construction in downtown Beaufort that has been debated for the past 15 years is about to be played out in the short term. What seemed to be piecemeal plans over time are falling into place as part of a master plan to transform two blocks of the shortest street in the commercial district into a canyon of three-story buildings.

In brief, plans have been submitted, with varying stages of approval, for two three-story hotels, a three-story apartment/office space building and a one-story conference center that would accommodate hundreds. That is a probable 88 hotel rooms and 24 apartments along with additional conference attendees crowded into two blocks.

A fitness center would be housed in one of the hotels and a proposed roof-top bar could add fourth-floor activity to the other hotel. Within a half block of these developments, a 436-space parking garage received preliminary approval in 2017 to accommodate the traffic that the new facilities attract.

This hub of new construction is proposed one block off Bay on single-lane-wide Port Republic Street in the two blocks between Scott’s and Charles streets. 

Applications for the projects have ranged over years with the most recent for apartments at the corner of Port Republic and Charles streets currently under discussion at the City of Beaufort’s Historic District Review Board. Now it appears all are moving forward as part of sweeping plans by 303 Associates and the Beaufort Inn LLC.

The parts came piecemeal – first, or was it second, the parking garage? Then the hotel at 812 Port Republic. The long game has been in play for a total of five projects, and now with recent proposals, the big picture has evolved.

As a 25-year observer of and participant in local civic life and a downtown resident, I feel compelled to ask some questions and to encourage others to contribute to the discussion. 

I predict the totality of these projects will pose the greatest impact on traffic congestion on neighboring businesses and residences, on infrastructure and on the National Historic Landmark District at any time in history, including the Great Fire of 1907.

How did it happen that five new large-scale projects could be concentrated within 2• blocks without an apparent masterplan for the public and the City to consider as a whole? Without traffic impact studies? Without required archaeological investigation? Will that be done?

How will downtown businesses, already hurt by the covid pandemic, handle multiple construction projects at once? How will the impact of increased mass and scale affect the viewscape and the context of the other buildings on the street? How will all the infrastructure be affected – water and sewer, power, parking, fire protection?

Have affected entities — the Downtown Merchants Association, the Beaufort-Port Royal Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Beaufort Area Hospitality Association — opined? Where is the research that insists on this kind of development downtown? 

During the long game, small landmarks have slowly disappeared. Soon to go are the sprawling one-story building at the corner of Port Republic and Charles and the small Bampfield Building on West, the second to the last structure of what is left of Black Wall Street of the first half of the 20th century. 

Consider the scale of these buildings when picturing the height, mass and scale of what’s proposed. New development to meet a city’s needs is not a bad thing. However, all the questions need to be asked and answered before it occurs.

Maxine Lutz is a 25-year resident of Beaufort and a 22-year employee of the Historic Beaufort Foundation, including seven years as executive director.