Without hesitation, Basim Hassouneh reels off some of the stores that have come and gone over the past 20 years near his Super Bad clothing shop on Upper King Street.
“That was a paint store. That was a hat shop. That was a T-shirt store. O’Malley’s used to be a five-and-dime. Beside that was a beauty supply shop,” Hassouneh said, all the while pointing to the new bars, restaurants and other businesses that have taken their place.
He’s seen a lot of changes along the corridor of shuttered storefronts sprinkled among small loan companies, fix-it shops and furniture stores. He’s about to see more, and in a major way.
The northern stretch of Upper King from Ann Street to the Crosstown Expressway has emerged as downtown’s new commercial hot spot. No fewer than a dozen projects have been completed within the past year or are moving forward.
From PeopleMatter’s plans to inject a high-tech infusion of software workers at 466 King to the numerous dining businesses that are cropping up, Upper King is roaring back to life.
“There is nowhere else to develop,” said commercial real estate agent Chris Price of PrimeSouth Group, referring to the peninsula’s business district. “There is available property there, and it’s becoming the hip area to be in.”
Longtime Charleston real estate investor Patterson Smith agreed.
“Any new food or beverage places have to look at Upper King if they want to come to Charleston,” said Patterson, whose office is just off Upper King on John Street. “There’s nowhere else to go.”
Fueling some of the growth are apartments and hotel rooms coming to the area, projects that will put more residents and tourists on the street.
About 200 high-end rental units soon will be going up at Spring and Meeting streets while a 238-room lodging is planned as part of the adjacent Midtown project at King and Spring streets. A 120-room Holiday Inn already is rising a block away at Woolfe and Meeting streets.
“We have been looking for that northern bookend,” Price said. “Now, it’s coming. There’s a lot of good stuff going on in that area.”
While the economy and the commercial real estate industry remain in a fragile state, there is no shortage of interest in this part of town, especially from the food-and-bever-age industry.
Last June, the Cocktail Club opened in the upper floor of 479 King, and a few months later, its owners opened The Macintosh restaurant directly below.
In October, Michael Shem-Tov, a partner in two Mellow Mushroom pizzerias, ventured farther north to 654 King with a sandwich shop called Butcher & Bee between the Crosstown overpasses.
In December, Kevin Dignan branched out five years after opening O’Malley’s pub and started Mercury Bar next door at 547 King.
Two doors down, Super Bad’s Hassouneh diversified by opening a convenience store called College Market just after Christmas, seeking to capitalize on the College of Charleston crowd.
That same month, former REV Foods executive chef Kevin Johnson started serving finer dining at The Grocery at 4 Cannon St., half a block off King.
And there’s more to come.
The former Bank of America building at 544 King St. will become an oyster bar in the fall, a product of acclaimed FIG restaurant chef Mike Lata and business partner Adam Nemirow.
By May, the former antique mall store at 495 King will be transformed into a two-story restaurant called Stars with a rooftop bar.
The vacant building that once housed Charleston Paint Co. and nearby property could be the site of an unnamed restaurant with two office users upstairs or retail.
At 186 St. Philip St., a block off King, Jason Cronen and Alley Ejlali, both veterans of the local food and beverage industry, plan to transform a former church at St. Philip and Cannon streets into a combination cafe, bar and Laundromat called Dirty Laundry.
And half a block over from Upper King on Columbus Street, The Alley will come to life this summer, offering bowling and dining, said David Crowley, one of the partners in the project. That’s across the street from The Post and Courier, which sits on 12 acres controlled by parent Evening Post Publishing Co.
The site includes large, undeveloped parcels between Meeting and St. Philip streets, but the company has announced no development plans nor has it submitted
any to the city, Evening Post CEO John Barnwell said last week.
Most of the new business owners coming to Upper
King said they chose the
area because they wanted to be on the peninsula, where space for commercial ventures is getting increasingly scarce.
Nemirow and Lata latched on to the historic Bank of America building in a $1.2 million deal because of its location and availability.
“We wanted to find something we could purchase,” Lata said. “There are limited options. That building has a certain nobility to it. For our concept, it’s going to be the right spot. It’s a good location with all the development up there and tourists and conventioneers coming to the new hotels.”
Johnson, owner of The Grocery, said he, too, chose the area because there are few places left to put a new restaurant in the city.
“We also like the energy of that area,” he said. “It has progressiveness and the feeling of urban renewal.”
Keith Jones, one of the principals in the new Stars restaurant venture and a partner in Amen Street and Southend Brewery, said the area is developing into a restaurant corridor like those on Market, East Bay and Meeting streets. The higher-quality restaurants will feed off one another, he said.
“If you have five or six great places, it’s going to help,” Jones said.
Pros and cons
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley called all the new investment along and around Upper King a natural extension of the city’s business district, coming about because of planning, timing and a $20.5 million face-lift that stretched from Broad Street past the Crosstown.
“It’s coming back to life in a new form,” Riley said.
Smith, the real estate investor and broker, is concerned that the influx of bars and restaurants could overwhelm the area.
He’d like to see more retail shops and office space as part of the mix.
“If it’s only a nighttime restaurant and bar crowd, then it’s not a healthy business district,” he said.
Hassouneh of Super Bad agreed.
“We need more retail stores,” he said. “We don’t need more night life. In the daytime, we see no traffic at all.”
He’s also worried that the small businesses that rent might not be able to survive the surge in real estate values that could come because of higher demand for space in the area.
“It’s good for real estate, but it’s making the rent go up so high and running all of the old businesses out,” Hassouneh said. “My business is down because of the shift in clientele.”
On Cannon Street, Nathaniel Drain of The Distinguished Gentleman Barber Shop for 15 years said the changes have advantages and disadvantages.
He welcomes the new investment and the new life that will come to the area, but he’s worried about businesses that have been in the area for years.
“It’s going to push a lot of the small businesses out to the North Area, especially the small black-owned businesses,” he said.
Parking is an inevitable issue that will come from all the business growth, but some note that a garage is proposed as part of the Midtown project.
Ryan Glushkoff, president of the Cannonborough-Elliotborough Neighborhood Association, which encompasses most of Upper King, said parking problems are unavoidable in a dense urban setting. But he didn’t see a major downside to all the
new businesses headed his way.
“We welcome the development,” Glushkoff said. “It adds much-needed vibrancy to the area.”
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or on Twitter at @warrenlancewise.