When The Beach Co. bought a former North Charleston asbestos plant at a 2003 bankruptcy auction, the firm planned to create a 23-acre industrial park for warehousing and light manufacturing.

Today, the company has a very different plan for what’s known as Garco Park. The Beach Co. now hopes to build hundreds of apartments and a large amount of retail space on the property, which is just north of the trendy Olde Village commercial strip on East Montague Avenue.

“Garco Park needs to be the engine that drives the retail district,” said Beach Co. Vice President Kent Johnson. “Hopefully, by late spring, we’ll be able to start building the public roads.”

Clearing out asbestos

In 2003, an industrial park seemed like a natural use for the property.

It was covered with dozens of asbestos-contaminated buildings, and the site is along Virginia Avenue near several tank farms and a freight rail line.

“There were 250 drums of unknown chemicals that had been abandoned on site, and we had to test them all,” Johnson said.

The Beach Co. also bought a large adjoining property, previously owned by defense company Martin Marietta, and found that site also was contaminated with asbestos. Johnson said about 700 tons of contaminated material and dirt were removed, and the properties within the roughly 40 acres the company owns are now covered by a voluntary agreement with state environmental regulators.

The asbestos plant once was home to General Asbestos & Rubber Co. — GARCO — which, along with the former Charleston Naval Base and the paper mill, was one of North Charleston’s largest industrial employers in the early 1900s.

The company built hundreds of homes for its workers, establishing several North Charleston neighborhoods. The company became Raybestos-Manhattan in 1924, then RM Engineered Products, then M-Tec Corp.

But GARCO is the name that’s stuck to the site.

“Many of the members of our neighborhood council worked at the GARCO mill and had family members who worked there,” said Gayle Frampton, president of the North East Park Circle neighborhood council. Her father-in-law worked at the company for 42 years, and her husband worked there briefly as well.

“So, we are vitally interested,” Frampton said. “We do want to see some good development come in there, and we have been pleased with The Beach Company.”

Filling needs

As The Beach Co. worked to clean up the property during the mid-2000s, the Park Circle area and Olde Village were becoming trendy, attracting young professionals who bought homes in the area.

A development agreement approved by the city in 2008 called for a mixed-use concept at Garco Park, and The Beach Co. set out to attract a full-service grocery store to the property, rather than the defense contractors initially seen as likely tenants. But there were problems, including complications about providing access from Virginia Avenue, where an active freight line crosses the road.

Grocery chains — which have flocked to affluent areas like Mount Pleasant — have been reluctant to establish stores in the heart of North Charleston. The city and nonprofit groups have launched several efforts to attract one, and The Beach Co. fared little better with the Garco Park site.

“We have been unsuccessful in getting a grocery store to commit to Park Circle,” Johnson told the city’s Planning Commission at a recent meeting. “We tried really hard.”

Now, the company is thinking it might attract a combination gas station and convenience store to the corner of Virginia and Empire avenues. The sort of place that sells food and maybe sandwiches, Johnson said.

Frampton said residents would appreciate having a place to buy groceries.

“People who live in this area need a place they can go and get bread and milk and fresh vegetables and things like that,” she said. “It needs to be a nice place, and not just a convenience store with beer and cigarettes and soft drinks.”

Parking plan

The keystone of the company’s revised plans is the old brick mill building on O’Hear Avenue at the end of Garco Street.

That building is the only one that will remain out of 42 buildings that were on site when The Beach Co. purchased the property. It could contain leasing offices and apartments as development gets under way. The building is a short walk, about 400 feet, from the restaurants and bars on East Montague Avenue.

It’s so close that some of the Garco Park site is used as parking for the business district. Some nearby business owners are concerned about the amount of parking that will be created for the new apartments and businesses as the site is developed.

“If you go (to East Montague) on a Friday night, you’ll see that people are parked everywhere,” said Jan Turner, who owns the Village Hall event rental business on East Montague, and has a real estate office up the street. “We’ve gotten some restaurants there in the last few years that are wonderful, but people need places to park their cars.”

“If we don’t create enough parking at the Garco site we’re going to have a long-term problem,” she said. “As a lifelong resident, I’m so glad to see to see the city being revitalized, but I want to make sure we have enough parking going forward.”

The city is negotiating to buy more land for parking in the area. A 50-space lot on the Garco Park site that the city has been using will go away once the redevelopment starts.

Councilman Bob King represents the area, and said he’s glad to see the development plan moving once again.

“We’ve been waiting on this for a long time,” he said. “It will help that area quite a bit, and it will put more property on the tax rolls. We’re quite enthusiastic about it.”

The Beach Co. has asked North Charleston to require less parking than city regulations specify for the roughly 300 apartments that the company expects to build. The city requires two spaces for each unit, but the Beach Co. says that’s an unusually high requirement, and wants the city to allow the company to count on-street parking spaces that will be created when interior streets are created for Garco Park.

The city will be considering that issue as it looks toward renewing the 2008 Garco Park development plan for another five years.

Apartment projects

Christine Beddia, who until September was president of the Olde North Charleston Neighborhood Council, said it seems like all the developers want to build apartments now. The nearby Mixon development plan also has shifted toward more apartments, she said.

Beddia said she’s not sure how many higher-priced apartments the area can support, but said investment in the area is certainly a positive for property values.

“I think that the more that is invested in the area, it only helps us grow,” she said.

Johnson said the apartment development likely will attract young professionals, who have tended to be renters rather than buyers following the housing meltdown.

“What we have come to realize is that the young professionals and college graduates live differently,” he said. “They don’t live in their apartments. They sleep there and keep their clothes there, but they live in the public realm.

“We’ll put the people in (Garco Park) to help the retail area grow, and we’ll put in some retail to capitalize on that,” Johnson said.

He said the company could be seeking permits for construction in 2014.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.