Eclectic East Central gets another shot at success 

Post-recession, new businesses and new construction drive interest

The folks at Cone 10 have some unique needs, like a place for a kiln and a landlord that isn't too worried about a little clay here and there. But the new pottery studio on Morrison Drive also has something that many businesses crave: space. "We just got to exhale when we got here," says Betsey Carter, one of Cone 10's five owners.

Operating as a shared resource for area potters, Cone 10's old space on Meeting Street downtown was a tight fit, with artisans often working on top of one another. The group searched other up-and-coming districts, like Cannonborough-Elliotborough, but couldn't find enough room until they looked at the East Central neighborhood. "Along this area was just about the only place Charleston could expand to suit a business like ours," says co-owner Fiorenzo Berardozzi.

More than two years ago, the City of Charleston plotted out a vision for growth in the East Central community, roughly bordered by Huger Street, Meeting, and Morrison (and home to the City Paper offices). The condominium on Cool Blow was just opening its doors and developers were showing off designs for the ambitious Promenade development on the Cooper River. We won't go so far as to say that tragedy struck, but broader redevelopment was put on the shelf as the recession settled in. Now, businesses like Cone 10 that are looking for breathing room are breathing new life into the area.

Responsible for reimagining urban planning, the City of Charleston's Civic Design Center took a look at what types of businesses were supported in the district a few years ago. For a generation, most of the neighborhood had been labeled light industrial. But planners recognized in 2008 that today's East Central is pretty eclectic. "It's probably one of the most mixed parts of the city as far as the variety of uses that go on in such close proximity," says CDC Director Michael Maher.

There are small neighborhoods, corner restaurants, shops, and warehouses, along with a handful of industrial businesses that had survived from the district's last iteration. "We wanted to make sure we allow those kinds of activities to continue," says Maher. "But we also recognized that the future in that area was probably less in the light industrial and more in the commercial, retail, and office type uses."

So a large swath of the district was rezoned, with most of the business lots that weren't currently being used for industrial purposes switched to a "general business" designation. Maher notes that in a lot of ways the zoning change was the first step toward rebranding the area.

"When all of the land is zoned light industrial, it tells you right away it's an industrial area," Maher says. "The zoning changes the tenor in the way people think about the place even just in the way you define it."

The major developments like Promenade didn't survive the recession — as Maher puts it, that momentum "was occurring in a different universe." But he notes East Central is ready for a leaner, meaner economy in 2010.

"The prior environment was based on large-scale development," he says. "That requires that you either have large properties or assemble a large property. One of the biggest impediments to East Central for a long time was that, generally, you have a lot of small lots. So our current environment of smaller scale, targeted investment is a little more conducive to an area like this where you have smaller lots."

The new Cone 10 studio serves 23 potters and sculptors, compared to 16 at the former space. Individual rooms now house different tools and shelves for pottery in different stages of completion, as opposed to everything being in one room at the old site.

The artists aren't the only ones who have enjoyed the breathing room. The environmentally conscious retailers at DwellSmart spent three years in a Mt. Pleasant shopping center until their growing online business required them to seek out more warehouse and shipping space, along with room to expand. The building vacated by restaurant supplier Berlins was one of the few places in the region that fit the bill. Owner Mary Gatch says the company is anxious to work with neighbors and foster an identity for the district. "I think we'll be here for a long time," she says.

Gatch wondered how many customers would find the storefront. "I didn't anticipate this could be a good location for people coming in," Gatch says. But easy access off the Ravenel Bridge and ample parking have folks making the trip.

Coming from busy Meeting Street, Cone 10 was also worried about foot traffic, but also found an asset in on-site parking. "There is a part of Charleston that doesn't like to go anywhere without a parking space," says co-owner Susan Gregory.

And the team has learned how to get the word out. "We knew we'd have to create our own buzz up here," Carter says. Cone 10 had a big opening during the holidays, and it's planning dinner events and working with groups like Lowcountry Local First.

With Taco Boy's success on Huger Street, as well as a large residential and commercial development proposed at the corner of Meeting and Huger, the city plans to focus some attention on the largely undeveloped corridor. "The question we have is what we need to do to make it more desirable, what kinds of incentives we can put in place to help take what's started organically and leverage it," Maher says.

Meanwhile, DwellSmart's Gatch is hoping to collect the neighborhood's business owners to talk about giving the district a name that's more palatable than East Central.

"It's important to come up with a name that describes the district," she says. "It's an area with all sorts of dynamics going on." She points north to the largely industrial area that has become known as the Neck of the peninsula and playfully tosses around one suggestion. "I don't know whether we want to be known as the chin."


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