By Jim Hicks, Lady’s Island Planning Commission Representative
Recently, Aslan Whitehall, LLC, the present owners of the 19 acre Whitehall property, requested the City of Beaufort rezone six lots on Harborview Drive from strictly residential use to allow a form of neighborhood commercial. The lots in question were not part of the original Whitehall property and consisted of single family residents adjoining the property. As the Whitehall property went through a series of owners the homes and lots were purchased, the homes demolished and along with the rest of the property annexed into the City of Beaufort. A key element when considering the requested rezoning is consideration of and fairness to the residents of Harborview Circle who live adjacent to the six lots in question. Should zoning other than residential be allowed for these six lots that in the past were part of a residential neighborhood? The remainder of the Whitehall property is presently zoned neighborhood commercial which allows a wide variety of residential and commercial uses. Approval of the request would have all of the Whitehall property with the same type of zoning — neighbor commercial.
The City of Beaufort Planning Department and the Office of Civic Investment, which is leading the city’s effort to transition to a form based code for development, recommended denial of the request at this point or at least until form based zoning is implemented or the owner proposes a specific design as part of planned unit development.
The Whitehall property is a beautiful piece of undeveloped land and an environmental jewel with its large oaks and waterfront view. In the early part of 2000 the rumor of the day had it being the site of a large hotel (early 2000), the property was then purchased by 303 Associates which annexed it into the City in 2005, shortly after annexation the property was purchased by Kean and Company of Charleston which then sold it to Aslan in 2006. Aslan cleaned out the undergrowth on the property and demolished the building which was serving as Bataux Restaurant. Aslan designed a couple of marketing plans for the development of the property, all based on a high density, but with the 2007 drop in the real estate market Whitehall like so many other similar projects throughout the United States went into a holding pattern.
The City of Beaufort Office of Civic Investment has evaluated the property for development as part of the plan for implementation of a form-based code and as part of their report in regard to Whitehall indicates: “… of the few places capable of handling development at high density within the sensitive ecosystem in which Beaufort sits, this (Whitehall) is one. The volume of water that flows along the Beaufort River at this point provides for the greatest amount of natural flushing. Instead of sprawling on Lady’s Island in the form of shopping centers and car-dependent commercial uses, a town center located at Whitehall would serve the community more efficiently and provide more opportunities for residents working life style opportunities not dependent on car use and long commutes.
Our (Office of Civic Investment) plan saves a tremendous amount of trees and still provides a marketable and successful building program that leaves about 25 percent of the property open. The main street of Whitehall and the buildings that front Sea Island Parkway will have riverfront and park views. Through proper design, the new village center would allow the waterfront walk to continue forming an important anchor for pedestrians and cyclist enjoying the now extensive and unique waterfront experience we have begun to envision, stretching from maybe the Hospital all the way to Whitehall. Imagine landing a boat at the marina and being able to walk three miles, a little over a mile and a half in either direction, through plazas with cafes and shops, into parks, along boardwalks that lead to points where you can access the water by Marina or boat launch, by kayak and boat, and cross the river by foot on the bridge.”
It is hard to find fault with this vision but the lessons of the last decade have been very clear that the impact of high density developments can overwhelm our roads and rivers. Over the last decade the Whitehall property has frequently changed owners and with each new owner has come an increased value for the land and a new “concept” for its development. Like so many similar properties purchased at the peak of the land boom decisions by the owner of the Whitehall property as to its future must be dictated by financial considerations. Understanding this and appreciating the fact that it must be developed, the manner in which this is accomplished will have a significant long term impact on both the City of Beaufort and Lady’s Island. Hopefully, any future development of the Whitehall property can be accomplished in a cooperative effort between the developer and the City of Beaufort with a full appreciation of the impact such development will have on the entire area.