It was one of those rare and risky real estate deals that end up changing the future and the fortunes of a city.
As Charleston Mayor Joe Riley prepares to leave office after a 40-year run, one of his biggest accomplishments remains the development of “The Omni” project in September 1986.
Now called Belmond Charleston Place, the 440-room upscale hotel and shopping complex filled a glaring urban cavity in the heart of downtown when it was completed at a cost of $80 million. It also provided a life-saving commercial lifeline between a gasping King Street shopping district and the more-traveled City Market area.
Nearly 30 years later, the structure is arguably the epicenter of a local economy where tourism is the No. 1 industry.
Riley was the project’s public face — and its biggest poltical proponent — but he had plenty of help and financial backing from the private sector.
Perhaps no single individual played a more vital and largely behind-the-scenes role than the billionaire shopping center magnate and philanthropist A. Alfred Taubman, who died a few weeks ago in his home state of Michigan. He was 91.
“It couldn’t have been done without Al Taubman,” Riley said last week.
Charleston newcomers wouldn’t have recognized the King Street of the late 1970s and early 1980s. It and many other once-thriving downtown retail districts had all but lost the foot-traffic war to suburban shopping malls in places like North Charleston and West Ashley.
A longtime merchant would later describe King Street as “a no-man’s land” during that era. An Atlanta magazine in 1979 summed it up succinctly: “Downtown Charleston, in many ways, epitomizes the decaying American city.”
By then, Riley was already working to reverse the trend. Elected in 1975, he came across a study during his first few months in office that called for a major upscale hotel on a blighted 3.5-acre city block at King, Market, Meeting and Hasell streets. He ran with the idea — hard. Preservationists and other opponents pushed back — equally as hard, blasting the proposal as “Riley’s Folly.”
The mayor ultimately prevailed, but almost a decade would pass before work began.
Taubman entered the fray in 1983, a few months after the city’s original developer dropped out at the 11th hour. He was recruited by the other partners, David Cordish and Robert Embry. Taubman’s analysis of the deal included a stroll along King Street and visits with merchants in April of that year, according to a local newspaper report.
“His interest, and his financial clout, have been described by city officials as a tremendous boon to the project,” the article went on to say.
Taubman’s enthusiasm and commitment to quality never wavered, even as costs climbed, Riley said.
“They ended up putting millions more into the project than they had expected,” he said.
But even Taubman had some reservations, at least early on. Riley pointed to a design meeting that was held above a drugstore, in a room overlooking King and Wentworth streets. The normally hands-on and gregarious Taubman was less interested in the architectural details than in the dearth of pedestrian activity he saw on the sidewalks below.
“We’ve been here an hour and only three people have walked by,” Riley recalled him grousing.
Taubman’s influence as a major retail landlord helped change that equation. Riley said a running joke was that “the road ran through Charleston” for any national merchant looking to lease space in a Taubman-owned shopping center during those years.
“If you were Banana Republic or Gap ... and you wanted to get in his mall in Beverly Hills, he was going to make you come to Charleston,” he said.
“He had the power to bring retail there,” Riley said. “Having high-quality retail stores in what had been a vacant lot was a real game-changer.”
Robert “Bobby” Taubman, chairman and CEO of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Taubman Centers Inc., said his late father was enamored by bold, visionary development deals along the scale of Charleston Place and that he “was an absolute genius” at executing them. In the 1980s, for example, his malls typically were built in underserved but growing residential areas with pent-up demand for retail space.
“He was used to transforming places into destinations,” Taubman said.
After learning about the Charleston Place idea, Taubman said, “my dad became very interested” in the project based on the local demographics, the tourist traffic, the layout of the downtown area, and even the way the road system funneled vehicles to the peninsula.
“It’s an amazing human-scale city,” Taubman said. “People feel very comfortable walking on the streets and going in and out of the shops.”
Charleston Place can’t claim all the credit for turning the city into a hospitality hot spot, Taubman stressed. Other fine hotels followed, along with scores of world-class restaurants and retail stores, he said. Events such as Spoleto Festival USA have exposed the city to an international audience.
“All of that happened,” Taubman said.
The Taubman family remains a part owner in Charleston Place. It plans to retain its undisclosed stake through a privately held venture that includes Belmond Ltd., which owns 19.9 percent and manages the property.
“We see no reason to change our position in the asset,” Taubman said last week.
Riley regrets not being able to host Al Taubman for one more stroll, like the one he took in April 1983. He called Bobby Taubman not long ago about organizing a visit.
“I wanted his dad to walk King Street to see what he did,” Riley said
Taubman said it had been several years since his father’s last stop in the Holy City. A visit with Riley was in the planning stages not that long ago, he said, but time ran out on April 17.
“He was very proud of what had developed there,” Taubman said.
Contact John McDermott at 937-5572.