Wade Spees // The Post and Courier
John Zucker’s friends gather Friday night at Santi’s Restaurante Mexicano to help the local restaurateur (wearing the Groucho Marx nose) celebrate his 51st birthday. Santi’s, at Morrison Drive and Meeting Street, is at the heart of a revitalization effort in Charleston’s upper peninsula.
Manhattan has its SoHo district, and Charleston has an emerging "NoMo," or north Morrison.
That's one of the monikers being used to describe an evolving part of Charleston's upper peninsula. Within the past few years, an influx of like-minded restaurants, businesses and residents is forging a new identity for an area that lies largely between Morrison Drive and Meeting Street. It's roughly bounded by Huger Street to the south and Greenleaf Road to the north.
Some are referring to it as the "Creative Corridor," and many say it's becoming one of the hippest, most central places within the metro area in which to live, work and play.
Take Johnny Diamond, a 31-year-old eating lunch recently at the bar of the Tattooed Moose on Morrison Drive.
Diamond, a Charleston native, moved to the nearby Wagener Terrace neighborhood about a year ago. He and his buddies are now loyal to the restaurants that are close by. "We've migrated," he said. "We all used to live farther downtown."
Parking and less traffic are definite advantages, but so is informal membership in a club of "early adopters."
"It still feels like a neighborhood, but it's downtown," Diamond said. "It's kind of the last little secret left here."
A short distance away on Morrison Drive, another restaurant is taking shape in the Ole Charleston Forge building. Revolutionary Eating Ventures plans to open the 99-seat Royal American there.
It will be the second restaurant in the neighborhood for the company, which opened Taco Boy on Huger Street in 2009.
REV co-owner Karalee Nielsen said people thought it was a crazy idea to put Taco Boy in a such a fringe area.
But, she said, "We've been very happy with how everything has gone at that location. We see a lot of people come and go from Mount Pleasant," as well as downtown.
People were hesitant initially, Nielsen said. "I think it's getting people to take that leap in their minds."
Jennifer Kulick, owner of the Tattooed Moose, said she had serious reservations about the location. But she, too, has been pleasantly surprised.
Business has been fantastic and the customer base diverse, she said. It's a mix of business people and service workers during the day, "Then we start to see a lot of folks who live in the neighborhoods in the evenings." A number are coming from Park Circle in North Charleston, she said.
Restaurateur Martha Lou Gadsden seems a little ho-hum about the buzz, likely because she's seen ups and downs over the years since opening Martha Lou's Kitchen in 1983.
Gadsden fed a lot of car dealers when Morrison Drive was known as the "Auto Mile." Ravenel Bridge workers boosted business for a time.
It would be two more decades before another current hotspot -- Santi's Restaurante Mexicano -- opened up nearby. But recent publicity about Gadsden's soul food shack is bringing "foodies" in her door and to other "NoMo" restaurants.
"When I first moved over on this side, there was nothing on the East Side," she said.
More for less
William Cogswell saw the area as a blank slate in a prime spot when he developed One Cool Blow in 2008. The mix of 50 condos and 12,000 square feet of commercial space in three, five-story buildings stands out in the surrounding landscape.
An analysis by his company, Wecco of Charleston LLC, found about 35 acres of vacant or under-utilized properties in the area, including some relatively large tracts.
"When you have that kind of density opportunity, it's going to be a long time before the area is built out enough to where you you're going to put serious pressure on rents," he said.
"I think ultimately what drives it is the economics," says Kulick of the Tattooed Moose. "It is still reasonable. None of us could afford a spot on King Street right now."
But Nielsen said there can be a downside to those lower rents. "The 'up-fit' tends to be more expensive because nobody has been in these buildings for 20 years."
A year ago, Mary Gatch moved DwellSmart, a retailer and wholesaler of eco-friendly and sustainable products, into a building that once housed a restaurant supply business on upper Meeting Street. DwellSmart had been in Mount Pleasant.
Gatch said the business needed more warehouse room for its e-commerce side, and the cost wasn't nearly as expensive as east of the Cooper. Now she has 14,000 square feet of storage and another 3,000 in showroom space.
But DwellSmart did sacrifice visibility.
"We're sort of a destination shop," said store manager Nanette Lourie. "We would love to have more foot traffic. I think that will come as this area develops and becomes more trendy. We've seen a lot of change in the year we've been here."
Mitchell Crosby tripled his space when he relocated his event planning company, JMC Charleston, to 45 Williman St. about a year ago. Crosby partnered with Event DRS and Icebox Innovative Beverage Services to buy the 9,000-square-foot building for $600,000.
He likes being connected to those synergistic businesses and says they also hook up often with two caterers in the area. But the central location is the trump card.
"Within less than a mile, I can be on the Ravenel Bridge, on the Morrison Drive I-26 ramp, or on the Crosstown heading west of the Ashley," he said.
Green with creativity
Initially by circumstance and more recently by choice, the area is becoming a cluster for enterprises with a shared vision of creativity and, in several instances, of being eco-conscious. Both have sparked the "Creative Corridor" nickname.
In the past four years, Cogswell said he has witnessed a surge of cutting-edge projects in the area. He points to the SCRA MUSC Innovation Center, a biotech incubator that opened in 2009, and Meeting Street Academy, which broke ground on a $4 million building in January.
Add to that the new GrowFood Carolina warehouse, a nonprofit distribution center linking small farmers with local restaurants and grocers, and DwellSmart, and the activity is very telling, Cogswell said.
"I do see this as a more creative zone. This feels like a place we can make a difference," said Gatch of DwellSmart.
Lindsay and Kate Nevins have the same idea on a larger scale. They have their sights set on buying 1600 Meeting St., a three-story, 12,000-square-foot former office building that hasn't been occupied in years.
What they hope to do is renovate the brick and column structure, built by Esso (now Exxon Corp.) in 1926, into work spaces for artists, artisans, designers, media arts and other creative endeavors, she said.
Those ventures can enjoy greater success "by the company they keep," Nevins said. "It's not an incubator but an incubator overlay."
"Green" and "sustainable" also are recurring themes along the corridor. Taco Boy led the way in 2008 when starting to renovate its building on Huger Street. The structural work incorporated sustainable systems such as collecting water for irrigation. The interior was crafted from salvaged and recycled materials.
The Cool Blow project also was designed with green in mind. Elements include a planted roof that cools the building and a parking surface that absorbs rainwater.
The remodeling of the GrowFood Carolina warehouse was done to meet international green building standards. Improvements included solar tubes in the roof for light and carpet made from recycled material in the offices.
Cogswell sees the neighborhood's development as an example of good growth.
"It has really grown organically, there's not been a master plan for it so to speak," he said. "I think this going to be an area of the region and certainly the peninsula that is focused on the local population rather than the tourist population, and I think that's something that Charleston really needs."
"It's happening on its own," echoed Tim Keane, director of the city Department of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability. "The city has a Local Development Corporation and the LDC has been doing some loans in that area. But the LDC is available to businesses all over the city."
Several of the business owners talked about the supportive network that has grown among them.
"There's been a behind-the-scenes collaboration among the many projects that have occurred. ... It's kind of neighbors helping neighbors, a very grass-roots revitalization," said Cogswell.
Jackie Tyler Thomson of the public relations and marketing firm Leapfrog said she didn't sense that camaraderie at first after relocating to the area in 2008.
But now, "We have a sense of pride as an early adopter. The area is really on the rise and gaining a lot of awareness. It's there and palpable."