Does peninsular Charleston have blighted areas any more?
It’s a question that struck me while thinking about the renovation of a small Charleston cottage at 191/2 Line St.
At first blush, this job looks like many others in peninsular Charleston.
A long-neglected, vacant house is getting spruced up with an improved foundation, new electrical and water lines, new insulation and mostly new siding. It’s a renovation not unlike many others done downtown in recent decades.
But the project not only is being done by Luxury Simplified, a private contractor with no government or nonprofit subsidy, but the house also sits on a street that has seen its share of crime.
If the private sector sees value in tackling historic projects on eastern Line Street, is there any other pocket of the peninsula considered too unsafe or off limits?
A college professor once told me longtime residents of a place can be the least aware of how its neighborhoods are changing, so it’s no surprise that Luxury Simplified is owned and led by Chris Leigh-Jones, who moved to the United States last year.
He’s an engineer and a self-described “serial entrepreneur” who has tackled ambitious restoration projects in Europe, including a 1760 townhouse in the United Kingdom, a 400-year-old French Gite with earthen floors and a 160-year-old limestone vicarage in Wales.
Leigh-Jones and Luxury Simplified already have tackled several other projects on the East Side and in Elliottborough.
His formula is to respect the property’s history, to a point. But he makes no apologies for adding insulation, redoing electrical and plumbing, removing asbestos and replacing failed plaster with sheetrock.
“You can get caught up in being historic,” he says, adding he is wary of overly romanticizing what was originally built as housing for poor people.
Many of the other renovations in this upper East Side area have had financial backing from the city or its housing authority or nonprofits. The Historic Charleston Foundation worked with Habitat for Humanity on 66 Lee St. a few blocks away, while the Preservation Society is tackling a similar cottage at 227 Nassau St.
Leigh-Jones says that a philanthropic approach can save a few homes, but adds, “If you can show that there’s an economic model and it cash-flows, you can save hundreds of them.”
Of course, so many renovations so fast can lead to gentrification, a rapid changing of the neighborhood that stokes social (and political) tensions. The city recognized this years ago and tries to pursue policies to promote diversity in all neighborhoods. That’s a good policy, but the city government controls things only to a point.
Leigh-Jones says he likes the mixed population of the neighborhoods and says his work is aimed to provide affordable housing to teachers, firefighters, nurses and other working folks. He notes he can renovate four downtown cottages for the price of one larger house in a desirable suburb.
“You have to be careful in renovating an area that you don’t change what you liked to start with,” Leigh-Jones says. “You don’t want a monoculture of affluent people.”
He says he tries to get to know his new neighbors, to open up a dialogue with them.
“He knows a great-grandfather near an Amherst Street property that he’s renovating as an office and has watched him interact with the neighborhood children. “He just opens his Bible and reads it to them. Why would you want to squeeze a guy like that out? No, not at all.”
As for the restoration work itself, he says the biggest challenge is the extent of unseen damage.
“The single biggest destroyer on the peninsula is termites,” he says. “Deferred maintenance is the termite’s best friend.”
“The second biggest challenge is not changing the character of the neighborhood that you liked to start with.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
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