The vacant Piggly Wiggly building at Ashley Landing sits somewhat precariously at the tip of a triangle bordered by Old Towne Road, Sam Rittenberg Boulevard and Sumar Street. Traffic zooms by on two sides.
It’s an awkwardly positioned 2.5-acre plot, now owned by the city of Charleston, which purchased it in August for $3 million.
Since then, many have wondered what will become of it, and some have devised proposals for reuse. City officials expect it to help their West Ashley renewal effort and have expressed interest in making it a civic hub.
William McSweeney, a historian and arts advocate who lives in West Ashley, has worked with other artists, including tuba player and businessman Chris Bluemel and songstresses Gracie and Lacy Miller, to reimagine the so-called Pig Site as an art space.
Their team was working up a proposal for the city when they learned about asbestos and structural problems that would require a complete demolition of the vacant store, McSweeney said.
Meanwhile, students at the Clemson Architecture Center in Charleston, directed by Ray Huff, are working on their own ideas to pitch to the city, ideas that include multiuse solutions, streetscaping, an arts venue and more.
Huff met with Quentin Baxter, a local jazz musician and entrepreneur, to discuss how a civic performance venue could become the centerpiece of the plans. That would satisfy one of the city's stated goals, and it would help answer a need in the arts community for more space. It would also revitalize the Ashley Landing shopping center, Huff said.
"Quentin has been helpful with articulating a vision,” Huff said. “What we’re trying to do is to move West Ashley from a fundamental suburban typology model to an urban one. ... To do that you want to achieve a certain density and be careful with the (use of) buildings as objects.”
A civic building is, by definition, an object, but Huff said it must be more than that: It must look good and serve a public good.
“So the students are dealing with these complexities” in an effort to convert a worn-out shopping area into a place of activity, transforming part of the suburban landscape into a more urban one, he said.
Baxter said a meeting with Mayor John Tecklenburg led to discussions with the city's Planning Director Jacob Lindsay, Design Division Director Allen Davis and Huff.
He said he hopes to see a 450-seat indoor performance space, with an adjacent outdoor stage, as well as "salons" that could be used for community activities and meetings. A venue like this in West Ashley, operated by the city, would lure performers looking for a medium-sized venue and provide opportunities for the city's various festivals, Baxter said.
"It should feel welcoming to everyone," he said.
Ashley Landing is a top focus area for the West Ashley revitalization project. City officials and consultants have said they want more in-fill, more mixed-use developments, better-connected neighborhoods, improved mobility and livability and more.
They also expect to make back the $3 million that the city spent on the property, according to Lindsay.
Lindsay emphasized that the city is still gathering input for the "Pig Site." Periodic reviews and public meetings will afford residents more chances to share their thoughts.
“Ultimately, the city is committed to a broad public process to determine the highest-success use for the Piggly Wiggly site,” Lindsay said.
First, though, he wants to get the West Ashley Master Plan approved. It will guide subsequent steps. City Council may vote on that Dec. 4, he said.
“Whatever we do there, we would try to use the whole site,” Lindsay said. “It should be something that catalyzes revitalization of underutilized properties.”
It also will involve reconfiguring traffic. Getting rid of the so-called "suicide merge" where Sam Rittenberg Boulevard and Old Towne Road meet is one reason the city bought the property, he said.
The Ashley Landing area, an entry point to West Ashley, already has seen some improvements. Charleston Stage announced its expansion there. Frothy Beard Brewing Company and Player’s Place Billiards and Sports Pub moved in not long ago, and Zombie Bob’s Pizza soon will open for business.
Residents surveyed for the West Ashley revitalization project said they want a greener, better connected, less congested and more cohesive community, and this has encouraged the Clemson students to think about density and in-fill and mixed use.
On Monday, Clemson students presented their ideas for a civic performance venue, pointing to large renderings and models constructed for the occasion. They got feedback from their professors, Baxter and Allen Davis of the city's Design Division.
The students were tasked with considering four strategies: elevation, densification, the addition of public green space and a pedestrian-friendly solution. One multi-purpose design by Julian Owens included hidden lower-level parking, office space and a curved green terrace that led gently to the performance venue. It sparked a lively conversation.
"We’re hoping to come up with a few guiding principles for how to handle the site,” Huff said, adding that students will make final presentations on Dec. 11, then take their ideas to the city in the weeks that follow.