The Albemarle section of West Ashley -- bordered by the James Island Connector, Folly Road, and Charleston Country Club -- has changed mightily since Cante Hare was growing up in the nearby Moreland neighborhood.
"It blows my mind what's going on out there," says Hare, 49. "Maybe I'm guilty of having these 'local shutters' on my eyes, thinking no one is going to pay those prices."
Over the past few years, hotels, restaurants, office buildings, and now more and more high-end condo developments are being built along that slender "finger" of the Charleston Harbor, where a marina now welcomes expensive boats and their tony owners to town and to second homes.
At a meeting with West Ashley neighborhood associations last week, Beazer Homes, better known for tract housing north of Charleston and around the nation, presented its plans to revamp the former Folly Road Criterion concrete products site at the corner of Folly and Albemarle roads into a $30-$40 million condo development.
"I grew up swinging on a rope tied to a tree into that finger of water," reminisces Hare. "There used to be a Wickes Lumber there.
"We thought we were out in the country, swinging on ropes into the Ashley River. Back then, you would not get killed crossing 17 and Folly Road. Of course, I was all of 10 years old then. Now ..." says Hare.
These days, Hare, a real estate agent with Kennerty Ratner Tezza, is poised to profit from the Albemarle area's explosion. Currently, he is representing a small, simple duplex outside Albemarle on Windermere Boulevard that had an original asking price of $369,000.
Why so much? It turns out the humble house is practically surrounded by condo/townhomes that are being erected on the sites of other duplexes similar to the one he's brokering. All were knocked down to make way for the new, stacked homes.
Nell Postell, the agent representing the Townhomes at Windermere Boulevard development, says all 16 units in the four quadplexes -- priced between $330,000-$340,000 per unit -- were put on the market at noon one day, "and by 8:30 a.m. the next day, they were all sold out."
Some of the units, she says, were "flipped" three times before construction even began on them. Translation: the ownership rights to some of the units were sold for increasing amounts of money before a brick was laid.
It's a pattern that is playing out several times over in the Albemarle area, according to Karl McMillan, who helped pre-sell all 18 townhomes and 11 of 12 single-family homes at Ripley Cove, a yet-to-be-built high-end condo development off the marina. He says the project's 42 condos are in the midst of the BAR approval process.
He says the pre-construction sales prices for most of the project's waterfront lots initially were between $600,000 and $800,000. Since their original sales, McMillan says some have been resold, or are under contract, for "20 to 25 percent higher." That means some of the lots have since sold for as high as $1 million.
McMillan, whose company, Karl A. McMillan Inc, specializes in large tract real estate sales like the Stono Ferry subdivision, says it was just a matter of time before Albemarle began to zoom.
"I think it would have come along a lot sooner, but legal issues surrounding the sale of the marina over several years delayed it because they were not able to come to terms over it, and there was some litigation that lasted a long time," he says.
The market, says McMillan, was ready for an alternative to sky-high peninsular prices, "but the trick was getting the product ready."
McMillan, like all the real estate professionals interviewed for this story, says the Albemarle area has a potent three-way mixture of profit-making ingredients: location, location, location.
With a quick commute downtown, the presence of an ever-improving dining scene in West Ashley -- Al di La, Red Orchids Bistro, and Amuse, to name a few -- and convenient shopping at Earth Fare and other destinations in the South Windermere Shopping Center, more and more thick wallets may find their way to West Ashley.
That's what Beazer Homes' Frank Finlaw says his company was banking on when it bought the Criterion cement products store.
"It's minutes from downtown, and it has all the things nearby people want, shopping and even a Starbucks. I think it's just ground zero for the area, really, especially since you can still get anywhere in the suburbs in minutes."
Finlaw, who heads up the national company's Charleston division, says the $30-$40 million project will feature stacked townhomes with two-story units on top of two-story units, as well as a mid-sized condo building with parking beneath.
Wary of letting out a price-point so far from the lot even being cleared, Finlaw did allow that "it would be safe to say they will be north of $300,000 a unit."
It's also safe to say that the Beazer development will be an improvement on the piles of cinder blocks and chain link fences still on the site.
One of the agents interviewed, speaking confidentially, says that the delay in getting the new Cooper River bridge built helped the Albemarle area immensely, because developers didn't want to build those kinds of projects over in Mt. Pleasant, knowing their intended market -- from med school students to empty nesters -- wouldn't put up with the traffic nightmare that used to ensnare itself on the old bridges.
Even though second-year med students Bradley and Ryan Kalinsky aren't real estate professionals, they're coming off like a pair of pros, having bought a one-bedroom condo in the Albemarle condo development near where they went to high school, Porter-Gaud.
In 2001, the identical twins decided to take off two years after college to work before entering medical school at MUSC. The duo was able to put together enough money for a down payment on what was, in 2003, a $230,000 condo, which they promptly converted to a two-bedroom unit.
Recently, Bradley says, they were offered $350,000 for their unit. Now they see their home as a way to pay off medical school loans when they finally finish.
"It's out of control what's happening over here," says Bradley. "In two years, that's quite a jump."
Like others, Bradley Kalinsky has heard rumors that the next site to be gobbled up could be the Lifequest building. "It only seems logical," says one of the agents interviewed, "even though it appears to be doing a bang-up business."
So what is next for the Albemarle explosion? Will it envelop Lifequest, Turky's, or even Hay Tire?
What about Poland?
One agent, speaking confidentially, says the warehouses leading up to Porter-Gaud, a block down from Piggly Wiggly's headquarters, will probably be next. "Let's face it, that's not the area's highest and best use anymore."
"I don't know what people are saying around here, that we're 'losing' the Lowcountry we grew up with," says Hare. "It's already lost."