Editorial: Reality is far different from what Mr. Stewart says

Downtown Beaufort commercial district skyline at waterfront park

The quotations at the beginning of each paragraph below are the words of local downtown developer Dick Stewart as written by him to Beaufort resident Graham Kerr in response to Mr. Kerr’s opinion piece in The Beaufort Tribune. The comments following the quotations are by the editor of The Beaufort Tribune.

“I graduated from Beaufort High in 1967.”
According to Mr. Stewart’s schoolmates of the 1960s (whom I know), he grew up and went to school in Bluffton, not in Beaufort. Sure, he may have graduated from Beaufort High in 1967 but that was only one year. The difference is telling since Bluffton has become a huge strip mall of “big box” stores while Beaufort’s downtown commercial district has remained one of small, historic buildings with a scattering of small, compatible newer ones. Mr. Stewart is equating Beaufort to Bluffton. It’s not!

“I recall some people saying the waterfront park shouldn’t be built.”
What does the waterfront park have to do with the three proposed “big box” buildings? The waterfront park is open space, a park. It expands the ambience of historic downtown Beaufort. The proposed buildings are commercial structures that will create a canyon of mass, height, and congestion. They will destroy the ambience of our historic downtown. Whatever one’s point of view, these proposed buildings need to comply with the City Code, which has been intentionally written to make it difficult, maybe impossible, for “big boxes” to be built downtown if the law is obeyed and applied.

“Many of the businesses in the buildings you describe have gone. There is no department store, no hardware store, no shoe store, no auto supply store, no gas station.”
All of the former department stores downtown (Edwards, Belk, Lipsitz) are thriving today as restaurants, bookstores, art galleries, and the like. The two hardware stores (Fordham and Beaufort Hardware) have been repurposed into shops and offices as the result of millions of dollars of new capital investment. The shoe store (Lipsitz) is now a thriving retail shop. The auto supply (Western Auto) was demolished by Mr. Stewart many years ago without any City requirement for a replacement building. That’s where he wants to build his massive convention hotel. And the gas station site (Griffin) was a mistake from the get-go back in the 1950s and is now blessedly gone into open space as part of the waterfront park.

“In recent years four banks have left downtown.”
Yes and they have all been replaced by other thriving financial institutions and retail businesses except the concrete and steel building at 905 Port Republic Street (the former First Carolina Bank/BB&T/Pat Conroy Center) that was designed, sited, and landscaped by Robert Marvin, the nationally famous landscape architect who also designed the waterfront park. Mr. Stewart’s company currently holds a permit to demolish this building on the strength of city-staff representations that it is “full of termites” and “of no architectural merit”, according to the minutes of the City’s Historic District Review Board.

“My point is that change is coming and change is required.”
Yes, change has been coming for more than 300 years to historic downtown Beaufort. Until now  change has been in keeping with the ambience in size, mass, and scale of our exquisite small waterfront downtown. What is being proposed is to destroy the existing ambience to remake downtown into a conference venue with these “big boxes” as the anchors and the existing small shops as the satellites. Why not put the proposed conference center where it belongs, out on Boundary Street at Mr. Stewart’s Beaufort Town Center where there is plenty of vacant land for big boxes and big parking? Why destroy what it has taken 300 years to create when there is already a perfect alternative site?

“There is an established process that has worked well for decades.”
The process did not work well when the “big boxes” were presented to the City for approval. For reasons not yet fully understood, the “process” was allegedly ignored by the city’s staff and historic review board for these proposed “big boxes”.

“It’s important how the downtown works as well as how it looks.”
Agreed. And it works well except for too much through traffic funneled into downtown via Boundary and Carteret Streets and the Woods Memorial Bridge. These proposed projects will exacerbate the traffic and congestion, not reduce and calm it.

“I love Beaufort.”
Love requires care, sympathy, and nurturing for what is already here. This situation reminds one of the Vietnam War during which it was said in justification that the United States must destroy Vietnam in order to save it.

“I hear from many more people who look forward to buildings replacing surface parking lots in the core commercial district, people who understand that change is needed.”
The “surface parking lots” are ones that Mr. Stewart’s enterprises created by demolishing existing downtown commercial buildings without providing replacement buildings. And the “many people” he is listening to are the ones who stand to profit from his big boxes such as commercial building contractors. Better alternatives are readily available to avoid destroying historic downtown Beaufort.

“I think you will find the reality to be very different than the material you are spreading.”
Discerning minds understand what Mr. Stewart means when he refers to “material”. Contrary to this fatuous and scatological sarcasm, the present situation is not a laughing matter. It is now the subject of a very serious lawsuit. The decisions and perhaps the careers of Beaufort’s planning staff, city council, historic review board, and zoning board of appeals may hang on the outcome. Much more important, the outcome will determine the fate of 300 years of historic Beaufort.

The reality of the situation is that beautiful Beaufort by the sea is on the verge of being destroyed unless these “big boxes” do not happen downtown. They will not happen if the law is obeyed and applied.

Editor’s Note: If you are concerned about the direction the City of Beaufort is taking, especially in its Historic District, you are automatically a member of the Beautiful Beaufort Alliance, sponsored by The Beaufort Tribune. Click here to see the goals of the Beautiful Beaufort Alliance and what you can do to help.