1600 Meeting Street: Can a creative cluster help transform the local economy?
Editor’s Note: This is the last in a three-part series of stories in Arts & Travel about Charleston’s creative community and its efforts to stimulate artistic and economic activity in the area.
BY ADAM PARKER
Unshakable in its concrete and brick heft, the building stands among the overgrown weeds on the isolated stretch of upper Meeting Street, where the peninsula narrows and seems to exist primarily to shuttle vehicular traffic between Charleston and North Charleston.
This Neck Area once was a hub of local industry, but that kind of economic activity faded years ago, leaving behind the toxic soil. Lately, though, the upper reaches of the city have issued whiffs of potential that whet the appetites of the city’s hungry urban pioneers.
They have their eye on this part of town, and on that building, 1600 Meeting Street, which soon could become an iconic centerpiece of Charleston’s new creative economy.
Lindsay Nevin certainly hopes so. He bought the 12,000-square-foot structure and its two ancillary 2,500-square-foot outbuildings in mid-2011 after several years of dreaming, infatuation and false starts.
Now, he and his wife, Kate, are tapping into a creative community that appears to be gaining a critical mass, and they intend to transform 1600 Meeting Street into a colony of artsy entrepreneurs that, in turn, can expand the city’s economic reach and influence.
They can do so unrestricted by the usual historical encumbrances: No special renovation permits are needed, no oversight by the Board of Architectural Review.
“This is the last frontier of the Charleston peninsula,” Nevin said. “We have an opportunity to do something up here that’s different from the rest of the city.”
An idea is born
It certainly is a different landscape: expansive, dusty, post-industrial.
Southeast of the historic Magnolia Cemetery is Morrison Drive with its multiplying restaurants, gallery spaces and retailers.
On the other side of Magnolia is a sort of no-man’s land, though one finds a smattering of small businesses and a couple of churches.
Also there is 1600 Meeting Street, a building impossible to overlook with its wrap-around porches, three stories and solid demeanor.
“The initial attraction was the building itself,” Nevin said.
Five years ago, he tried to buy it, but the transaction fell through. It was just as well, he said. He wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted to do with the place back then, and, anyway, the global economy was about to endure a severe pummeling, one that would lower the price of the property.
In 2010, the Charleston Creative Parliament, an affiliation of creative types, published an assessment of the Charleston area’s “creative economy” that counted up the workforce and economic impact.
The report concluded that 27,000 creative jobs generated $1.4 billion in revenue, that “creative industries” were a major employer, and that the creative economy offered wages somewhat higher than the average hourly wage in the metropolitan area.
“That was when the light bulb went off,” Nevin said.
The building had been built by Exxon in 1926 as offices for its employees at what was once a bulk terminal transfer site, where fuel was pumped to local industry. But it occurred to Nevin that 1600 Meeting really was meant for another purpose: to house creative entrepreneurs who, because of this clustering of the like-minded, might be especially creative and especially entrepreneurial. They might collaborate. They might inspire one another.
“At about the same time, the broker called back saying the issues (that had prevented the first sale attempt) were resolved,” Nevin said.
In recent months, he’s been working with Exxon and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to arrange for the removal of the top layers of dirt on the site that are tainted by the past. The project should take about two weeks and likely will start by the beginning of June. Then comes the renovation.
The building is structurally sound, Nevin said. It just needs a good cleaning and build-out. The existing interior layout will not change. A couple of nonweight-bearing walls will come down to create two large loft spaces that accommodate anchor tenants. Natural light is abundant.
The cheap floor tile will get scraped off and the concrete underneath will be buffed to a shine, adding a contemporary industrial feel. The duct work will be exposed. A lounge area and general meeting room by the front door will be available to all.
Word of mouth already has buzzed about Charleston’s creative community, and a dozen or so potential tenants — artists, artisans and entrepreneurs — have signed letters of intent. The building likely will house an interior design company, a nonprofit or two, a tech company, clothing designer, masseuse, photographer and architect.
A group called Enough Pie, which spun out from the 1600 Meeting Street concept and includes Kate Nevin on its board, will be located there. Enough Pie is working to stimulate the growth of the creative community in this part of the city.
Cortney Bishop Design will occupy one of the outbuildings.
Bishop said a lot of the creative types are looking to get out of downtown, where traffic, congestion and high rents have a tendency to impede their success.
“We need space and light and creative energy,” she said. And that can be achieved, in part, by bringing people together and fostering collaboration.
The tenants of 1600 Meeting Street will work together by day, but they also will sip cocktails together after hours, they will socialize together, they will talk.
Bishop came to Charleston from Knoxville, Tenn., first in 2002 but couldn’t establish her footing.
“It was very, very difficult to find a job, and I had to leave,” she said. Things are different now. “There’s just been a complete turnaround mentally.”
The creative entrepreneurs are achieving a critical mass, she said. And one sees the effects in certain metropolitan pockets such as Park Circle, which she called the Brooklyn of Charleston.
The recent redevelopment of the upper peninsula indicates how the city’s unofficial commercial border has shifted toward the actual municipal border, Bishop said. And this in turn suggests that a broader linkage is possible between clusters of creative communities throughout the region.
Cortney Bishop Design will relocate in October, Bishop hopes, from its current Princess Street location downtown. The new studio will not be a traditional showroom, she said. “I have in mind a work-in-progress space,” an inviting room in which people can see her small staff in action, designing furniture, fabrics and accessories.
“Room to dream and room to grow, that’s what we’re really interested in,” Bishop said. “We will definitely try to promote the people we love.”
Food and more
Tara Derr Webb and her husband, Leighton Webb, have developed a new restaurant concept that will take shape at 1600 Meeting Street. Their enterprise is called the Farmbar and it’s a combo food establishment, retail operation and club.
The Webbs are renovating a 1949 Spartan trailer that will be installed on a small lot on the property, along with a 30-foot-long communal oak table, huge outdoor grill, two shipping containers transformed into retail space and a few other accoutrements, Tara Derr Webb said.
Fresh seafood will come from Bull’s Bay. GrowFood Carolina will provide sourced produce and meats from local farmers.
The project is the result of an ambitious life-change. The Webbs, quintessentially urban, former residents of London and Los Angeles, relocated recently to their Deux Puces farm in Awendaw, where they grow vegetables and enjoy milking their goats. One of the animals, Mavis, has become a mascot.
The Spartan trailer will feature a small, fixed, daily menu, but the project also will offer regular “pop-ups,” or impromptu eating events, at 1600 Meeting Street and elsewhere.
Interested in buying linens or crafts? Check out the shop in one of the containers. Looking for local produce or fine periodicals? To the container you should go. Organic cheese? Check. Wines from Bonny Doon? Yup. Goat milk soap? Of course.
The enterprise also will feature the work of emerging and established local artists. The whole thing is not at all like a food stand or standard retail operation. It’s carefully “curated,” Derr Webb, said.
The idea had been brewing for six years, and the Webbs had been considering the upper peninsula already. They had driven by 1600 Meeting Street purposefully, transfixed by the potential of the place, Derr Webb said.
When they encountered Lindsay and Kate Nevin at a Pecha Kucha event three years ago, Lindsay was describing his plans for the big brick building in the weeds and, well, that was it, the Webbs were hooked.
“Their vision just spoke to me,” Derr Webb said. “Finally, an opportunity to work with true collaborators!”
She is not shy about calling this initiative part of a “movement” and encouraging Charleston area residents to join it. This is likely to be an impetus for additional creative entrepreneurship, she said.
“Hopefully, in the long term, it will create more integrated diversity,” she said. “It will bring (the area) back to life in a very thoughtful and respectful way.”
‘The way people work’
Lindsay Nevin, who runs a comprehensive real estate company called Flyway, is in a good position to renovate and manage 1600 Meeting Street.
The building likely will host an art show produced by Enough Pie before the renovation begins this summer. Then all those letters of intent will become actual leases, and the building’s tenants will establish the first creative colony on the city’s upper peninsula.
Tenant artists will display their work on the walls. Four Barrel coffee, imported from San Francisco, sold by the Farmbar and sweetened with local honey, will provide the necessary caffeine. And this clustering of creative types will engender the de-velopment of other good ideas. Or at least make for a pretty fun work environment.
“The way people work is continuing to change,” Nevin said. “And we feel this is just part of that evolution.”
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.