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Cafe, garden shop planned for old Charleston gas station relished by some, reviled by others

80 ashley ave.jpg

A jogger runs by a vacant building at 80 Ashley Ave. in Charleston on March 10. A pair of restaurant owners want to partner with some nursery owners to open a café and garden shop in the long-abandoned structure. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Some peninsular Charleston residents commend a proposal to open a café and garden shop in a long-vacant former gas station, while others in the Harleston Village neighborhood condemn the effort.

Cameron Neal and Greer Gilchrist, who own Harken Café at 62 Queen St. and The Harbinger Café & Bakery at 1107 King St., have set their sights on the idled brick structure at 80 Ashley Ave. for the new venture.

Keeping it in the "H" family of restaurant names, the 1,200-square-foot space would be called Haven Café & Bakery.

The plan is to offer breakfast and lunch items, such as bagels and salads, along with lighter fare in the afternoon when customers can enjoy a glass of wine after the kitchen closes at 3 p.m. The venue would stay open each day until 6:30 p.m. after being open from 7:30 a.m. weekdays and 8 a.m. weekends.

Neal and Gilchrist want to partner with Kendal Leonard and Sam Metzger, owners of Meeting Green plant nursery on the upper peninsula, to set up a garden shop in an adjacent space occupied long ago by an auto garage. The roof is now caved in on the former garage, and the plan is to install skylights for the nursery.

The property is zoned for residential use, and Neal said they don't want to change that. They plan to ask the city's Board of Zoning Appeals on April 20 for a variance to allow the limited-hour café and small plant business.

"We believe this is an overwhelmingly positive thing for the neighborhood," Neal said.

Some nearby residents agree.

"I 100 percent support having a café, garden spot at 80 Ashley Avenue," said Gregg Smythe, who lives a couple of blocks away on Rutledge Avenue. "I think the hours are way too restrictive. Could we please get real and let these people run an honest-to-goodness business?"

Jack Handegan III grew up one block west of 80 Ashley and now lives just over a block away on Beaufain Street.

80 Ashley Avenue

A pair of Charleston restaurant owners want to transform the vacant building at 80 Ashley Ave. on the lower peninsula into a small café and garden shop but nearby residents oppose the effort. Warren L. Wise/Staff

For as long as he can remember, the building has been empty, the 29-year-old said.

"I always thought it was such a cool building," said Handegan, who studied historic preservation at the College of Charleston.

He also said Harleston Village has not always been an exclusively residential area.

"It used to be filled with a mix of uses such as taverns, bootmakers and such," Handegan said. "There were shops everywhere."

He laments the loss of corner stores in the community and lauds those who are willing to spend the time, money and effort to bring life back to the unused structure.

"If it doesn't go through, I think it would just be the biggest example of bureaucratic failure," he said. "They can build the huge Jasper project three blocks away but not this. I don't know how you can say it doesn't fit in the neighborhood."

Beau Daen lives on Wentworth, one block east of the site. He, too, thinks the café is a great idea and said his father wanted to buy the building years ago to restore it with a similar purpose in mind.

He's worried Harleston Village could become like the South of Broad area, where he grew up and now there are lots of houses with absentee owners and few businesses in the neighborhood.

Daen cited historical precedence of a commercial venture on the site and said not allowing it would go counter to what the city is trying to promote with embedded businesses in walkable communities.

"There aren't that many places in the neighborhood to grab a bite to eat, and I think it will increase property values because it will make it a more complete neighborhood," he said. "You couldn't find a better corner for it."

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Those living adjacent to the site take a different view.

Dawn Blackman lives on Wentworth Street directly across from the corner property and is opposed to a restaurant on the site.

"I don't believe it's appropriate, and I don't believe it's needed," she said. "Charleston is not lacking for restaurants and bars. It will impact us with noise, trash and delivery trucks nonstop seven days a week."

Blackman, who has lived on Wentworth for 23 years, prefers something with less foot traffic for the property. She suggested it might work as an office for a lawyer or accountant or maybe an art studio. 

Blackman said she's not alone in opposing the proposed use, saying several others in the area around the site also don't like the idea.

Sara Robertson is one of them.

"For me, personally, a food and beverage operation at this site would be a total disaster," said Robertson, who has lived on Wentworth beside the former gas station for the past 17 years. "It would mean noise, trash, parking/traffic issues, alcohol use as well as a significant reduction in the value of my home." 

80 Ashley Ave.

The building at 80 Ashley Ave. was once a gas station and auto garage. A pair of restaurant owners now want to transform it into a café and garden center, but nearby residents oppose the move. Warren L. Wise/Staff

She also believes if the restaurant were to be approved for the location and failed, it would open the door for similar venues to try their hand at the site.

Robertson also recognized the run-down condition of the property, saying an improvement is long overdue. But, like Blackman, she prefers a professional-type office use at the site.

"I would be supportive of such a development," she said.

To appease nearby residents' concerns, the restaurant owners are proposing several measures to help with privacy, noise and aesthetics, including adding decorative screens around the perimeter next to houses.

They also are willing to install a pervious surface to be more environmentally friendly and cut down on noise as well as plant new trees and shrubs around the site to soften the hardscape on site now.

Neal doesn't believe limited parking will be a problem because they want to encourage people to walk or bike to the shop.

The business partners originally proposed 36 seats outside but have now reduced that to 25. The indoor space has room for 18 diners.

Neal lives four blocks away from the site and has been drawn to the space since she was in college. She is as determined to make the café a reality as the residents living next to the site are to making sure it never happens.

"This one just feels really, really right," she said. "It's the gut check all the way through."

Neal remembers running into some neighborhood resistance when she and her business partner launched Harken on Queen Street.

"Now, some of the people who were our biggest naysayers are some of our best customers," she said.

They have a contract to buy the building but are waiting on the variance before moving forward. To gauge support for the project, Neal and Gilchrist recently launched an online petition. Early Friday, it had close to 2,000 signatures.

They will bring ideas for the property and their evidence of support to the city's Board of Zoning Appeals meeting in April, but opponents plan to show up with their neighbors as well. 

Reach Warren L. Wise at 843-937-5524. Follow him on Twitter @warrenlancewise.

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