When Libby Ganong was looking for a storefront for her handbag boutique, her first thought was King Street.
Heading down to the busy shopping district to look at a prime spot with her business partner Stacy Scull of Rua Framing, a realization struck the pair.
"It took us 30 minutes to park just to look at the space," Ganong says. "We wanted to be a little more accessible."
She's not alone. Last week, Ganong and Scull celebrated their grand opening on Cannon Street, sharing the night by spotlighting six other business owners nearby.
This kind of camaraderie — as well as the ample on-street parking and more affordable retail space — has led a variety of entrepreneurs to Cannonborough-Elliotborough, including buzzworthy spots like the Sugar Bake Shop, the trendy Fuel restaurant, and locally owned coffee shop Hope and Union.
For years the area has been treated like an unsightly thru-way for commuters and visitors. These days, those drivers aren't just passing through — they're stopping by.
Architect Andrew Gould, chair of the Cannonborough-Elliotborough Neighborhood Association's Architecture and Economic Development Committee, says the number of restaurants and cafés has grown since he moved to the area six years ago.
"Most interestingly is the quality," he says. "Certain restaurants in this neighborhood are some of the best on the peninsula. And they're in places that, just a few years ago, you would not have seen folks from outside of the neighborhood ever coming to."
When East Cooper mortgage firm Ikon Financial Group decided to head downtown, it settled nearby on Upper King Street, focused on providing homebuyer assistance and redevelopment opportunities in the Cannonborough-Elliotborough district, says broker Mick Jewell.
The firm is offering up its own community-wide open house later this month, called Bike and Browse the Boroughs, that will spotlight some of those high-quality businesses Gould is talking about.
"We love this neighborhood," says Jewell, noting some properties are in need of some serious TLC but provide "more bang for your buck."
"In order to be downtown — you're running out of space," he says. "This is turning abandoned storefronts into something like King Street."
Soon, it won't just be Jewell saying that. By the end of the year, work will begin on a $6.67 million streetscaping project that will include the same sidewalk and landscaping improvements as those recently completed on King Street.
But chic retail stores and restaurants have been driving King Street redevelopment for 30 years, whereas improvements along Spring and Cannon, which include converting the one-way routes to two-way streets, are being constructed in anticipation of the district's commercial success.
And the biggest cheerleaders come from the surrounding neighborhood. Some residential communities might be annoyed at businesses bringing shoppers in. But Cannonborough-Elliotborough is anxious for the kind of vibrant shopping district that will revive its community.
"It still looks like it's lagging behind other neighborhoods in terms of its state of restoration," Gould says. "There are still a lot of empty buildings in the neighborhood. There are still a lot of streets that don't have many trees or just have small trees.
He adds, "In another 20 years, our neighborhood will be as beautiful as Harleston Village or Wraggsborough."
The community's latest effort to attract new businesses is through a requested zoning change that would allow boutique hotels (with less than 50 rooms) as well as bed and breakfasts in some of the large, old homes.
The city's bed and breakfast ordinance was made decades ago to keep ambitious property owners from turning every large mansion South of Broad, into a mini-hotel, with regulations like requiring that homes with B&B's must b older than 1860. And zoning limits hotels to the King and Meeting Street corridor.
"I'm sure when that ordinance was written, no one imagined anyone would want to open a bed and breakfast this far up," Gould says. In Cannonborough-Elliotborough, "houses aren't as old, and we're 80 years later, so the way that ordinance was written makes no sense for this neighborhood."
Three years ago, the neighborhood association floated a host of ideas to bring growth to the area. The B&B idea had overwhelming community support but got lost in the shuffle. Now, the city's Department of Planning, Preservation, and Sustainability has made the change a priority, says Director Tim Keane.
"It's very unusual," he says of the neighborhood's enthusiasm for zoning changes. "We have neighborhoods that tend to be in protection mode — they talk a lot more about what they don't want."
The accommodations proposal is now part of the city's ambitious 10-year plan, and city staff has worked with the neighborhood association to draft the proposed zoning changes.
The small hotels would be limited to the Spring and Cannon corridor. Meanwhile bed and breakfasts throughout the neighborhood would create an incentive for repairing some larger, dilapidated homes, Gould says.
"There are some big Victorian houses on Spring Street and Rutledge Avenue that no developer will touch because they are so big and in such bad condition that the cost to restore them is not commiserate with what you could get for them as a single family house," he says.
The new guests will also mean more patrons for the the blossoming business district. The area isn't likely to be a tourist destination anytime soon, but small hotels might appeal to parents visiting the neighborhood's many college students.
"It will mean a lot more people patronizing the local restaurants and shops," Gould says.
The accommodations limits aren't the only problem Cannonborough has with city zoning. Mandatory setbacks from the sidewalk put new buildings at odds with the existing structures. And commercial limitations aren't consistent with historical Cannonborough-Elliotborough, which included corner stores throughout the area and businesses like barbershops mixed in with homes.
"They want to enforce their written rules applied arbitrarily many decades ago," says Gould. "We just want things to develop organically."
Keane says the city is going to make a "constant effort to reform our zoning," targeting decades-old ideas about planning that don't meet the needs of historic Charleston. He says that Cannonborough-Elliotborough can be a good example of the city getting out of the way and letting the community shape its future.
"The neighborhood could become a more artistic, livable, and vibrant part of town — that's our hope," says Gould. "Everyone loves the new businesses and would like to see more people in the neighborhood, not less."
For more info on the Cannonborough-Elliotborough Neighborhood Association, visit elliotborough.org.
For more info on the city's Century V Plan, visit the city's Century V page.