BEAUFORT - The plan was ambitious: The city would work with developers to build a new hotel, condos, restaurants and retail shops on a 2-acre city-owned parcel nestled strategically between the city's marina, its waterfront park and historic Bay Street.
The end was just as sudden.
Following a public outcry, one that Mayor Billy Keyserling said "came out of nowhere," City Council recently backed away from redevelopment plans for one of its largest sites.
The city is now working to find a Plan B, which many hope will be an expansion of the waterfront park.
Keyserling said he remembers when the property was sort of the city's main link to the water. As a child, he rode his bike there, pushed his small sailboat into the Beaufort River and went for a sail.
Today, the sunfishes are all but gone, and the property is mostly used for surface parking. It also has antiquated bathrooms, an aging marina building and spaces for horse-drawn carriages to load and unload between parked cars.
Past that, a small portion of the waterfront park extends along the water, and dozens of sailboats are tied up nearby.
The redevelopment idea was blessed in the city's new Civic Master Plan, but when it came time for City Council to rezone the property from conservation to commercial, many more people began to pay attention.
Real estate broker John Trask III and others collected about 2,500 signatures in less than three weeks urging the city to reject the zoning.
Maxine Lutz of Historic Beaufort Foundation said it didn't help that the developers had offered few specifics about what their project might look like.
"That's really what brought it to a head with the public. They thought that was premature, putting the cart before the horse," she said. "If we don't know what we're going to put there, why would we rezone it?"
Also, those opposing the project discovered that the federal money involved in creating the city's Waterfront Park also required the land, including the parking lot, to continue to be used for public recreational purposes -not commercial ones.
Keyserling said while the hotel-condo plan is dead, the city's hopes for the property remain the same: "The goal is to bring vitality back to downtown."
The city now is considering expanding the park along the lines of a plan created several years ago by Sasaki Associates, a Massachusetts design firm that also worked on Charleston's Waterfront Park and the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center.
The plan would involve creating a new parking structure on a small piece of the property and turning most of the rest into an expansion of the park. There also could be a new marina store and public restrooms.
But doing so would require building a new parking garage on part of it, and the city wants to get $19.5 million for that garage and the park expansion from a 1-cent capital projects sales tax. Its fate at the ballot box in November will determine what happens next.
Matthew McAlhaney, another opponent of the hotel-condo deal, said he hopes the marine parking lot could be redeveloped with a small amphitheater and perhaps boathouse with kayaks, paddle boards and fishing equipment. "These simple ideas, among many others, could create longer stays for visitors by way of more activities, all the while preserving the public vista," he said.
Trask said while the specifics of the park expansion are still being debated, there seems to be widespread support behind the idea, which could include not only new park space and parking garage but also limited marina-related commercial and new restrooms.
"People come to Beaufort because of the vistas and the openness and the access to the water," he said. "They're not coming because there's a fancy hotel right on the water."
Lutz said it remains to be seen if the marina project is an omen for the city's new Civil Master Plan, which passed earlier this year.
"This was the first project that was conceived as part of the civic master plan," she said, "and our feeling about the Civic Master Plan all along was that it was kind of unrealistic, that it was done by people from off who were kind of resistant to listening to us."
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling says he would like the city to renovate the marina parking lot into something that would bring more energy into this part of town.×
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