Near the northern end of a city known for its architectural elegance, Charleston's East Central neighborhood is dominated by highway overpasses, crumbling sidewalks, and rows of low-income housing units. There is a lot of concrete and a lot of poverty. And on Aug. 1, the first set of tenants will move into a brand-new apartment building where rent ranges from $850 all the way up to $1,800. To put it mildly, the developers behind the new East Central Lofts are optimists.
"I hate to use the word hipster, but it is gonna be a cool, hipster neighborhood," says Parker Meyer, a North Charleston filmmaker. After a few months watching the progress on the three-story apartment building across the street from Palmetto Brewery at 274 Huger St., with its brick facades and southward-facing picture windows, Meyer approached the East Central Lofts' renting agent with a proposal. She wanted to shoot a promotional video for the neighborhood in general and the lofts specifically. "I'm trying to convey that it's inhabitable, it's livable, you can go on your skateboard," Meyer says of her commercial concept. "There's plenty of space, and it's not an industrial wasteland." Meyer, who lives in North Charleston's quasi-hipster Park Circle neighborhood, says she has watched the development around East Central — from the opening of Taco Boy to the now-tenuous plan for a skatepark in the shadow of the overpass — and she sees a lot of potential.
Greg Atkins, co-owner of the lofts with his father Robbie Atkins and a third local business partner, doesn't mind the hipster label. "I don't think that's a bad terminology. That's what we want to do," Atkins says. He says the East Central Lofts' 72 units, which will offer chic features like 17-foot-tall windows, concrete or hardwood floors, and stainless steel appliances, are designed to attract young professionals and college students. And once those units are filled, he hopes to develop adjacent property and the ground floor of the lofts into restaurants and retail spaces. Atkins' Huger Properties LLC owns three and a half acres at the northwest corner of Huger and Meeting streets, and he has been waiting to develop the land since before the housing bubble burst. "We started doing this back in 2007, but you know, that's right when the world crashed, so we've ridden the storm for a very long time on it," Atkins says.
Atkins, who lives in Spartanburg but owns a home on Sullivans Island, is CEO of Atkins Machinery, a company that sells used and refurbished textile machinery. He has also owned two mixed-use properties on King Street for well over a decade, and he is well aware of the development boom going on in Charleston right now. He thinks he's found a niche.
About a mile south on Meeting Street, two new apartment complexes are slated to open this year: the 41-unit student apartment complex 400 Meeting Street and the luxury Elan Midtown apartments next door to Piggly Wiggly. But the East Central Lofts will feature a much lower price point than Elan, where studio apartments start at $1,405, and unlike 400 Meeting, it won't be strictly for college students.
When the first tenants unload their IKEA couches and home beer brewing kits at the East Central Lofts this fall, some of their closest neighbors will include the residents at three public housing properties and the Crisis Ministries homeless shelter. The current residents of East Central are well aware of the contrast. Timothy Goff, who lives nearby and walks down Huger Street to get home from work every day, says he sees the lofts as a sign of better times to come. "What it's going to do, they might get more advanced, clean the ditches out so the water will be clean, get some more lovely flowers, make it look good," Goff says. "It will be a bunch of good changes."
Around the corner on Meeting Street, George Hickson says he hasn't heard any grumbling in the neighborhood about the new development. He lived in the nearby low-income Grant Homes seven years ago, but he still comes back to visit. "I don't see a problem with it," Hickson says. "It's all about if they're going to put up with the low-income housing here. They're going to be spending a lot of money, you know? They might not want us here no more."
But Tim Keane, director of planning, preservation, and sustainability for the City of Charleston, says the nearby public housing won't be going anywhere. "That public housing will always be there. It's never leaving," Keane says. "We have a tradition in this town of keeping affordable housing exactly where it is." Keane points to the example of the Robert Mills Manor, a public housing complex in the middle of prime real estate in downtown Harleston Village.
In 1991, the city did shutter the Ansonborough Homes public housing complex along Concord Street, citing contaminated soil and structural damage from Hurricane Hugo. This paved the way for the construction of the S.C. Aquarium near the site, and critics have called it an example of forced gentrification. But in this case, Keane says the public housing along Meeting Street is on higher ground and in little danger of flood damage. Keane's department is also interested in developing a streetscape plan for Huger Street, which connects Morrison Drive to Hagood Avenue, to improve pedestrian and bicycle access, landscaping, drainage, and on-street parking options.
Whatever the future holds for the neighborhood, the East Central Lofts are an anomaly for now, situated well north of the downtown development boom's nexus. Their story could echo that of Cool Blow, a cluster of mixed-use office and condominium buildings that were built a few blocks north of Huger Street back in 2009. This was before Taco Boy or the Tattooed Moose, before Meeting Street Academy and the nearby police substation. In the throes of the recession, the condos sold slowly at first, but today, property manager Brook Griffin says the rental units — which range in price from $1,200 to $2,500 and attract mostly young professionals and graduate students — go like hotcakes. "They lease extremely quickly, usually within a couple of days," Griffin says. Her forecast for the East Central Lofts is positive. "Everybody wants to be downtown, and there aren't many places to go except for that area," she says.
When the lofts are completed, they will bring people with vastly different back grounds into daily contact. Keane points out that the new residents at the East Bay Lofts will know exactly where they're moving. "The people that move to this apartment building are going to want to be in a diverse neighborhood where everybody isn't alike, where there's very low-income people and higher-income people," Keane says.
Clint Vick doesn't take such a rosy view. "We're in the ghetto," he says. Vick works as a brewmaster's apprentice at Palmetto Brewery, which is directly across Huger Street from the new construction, and he says he has seen plenty of "interesting things" in his seven years working in East Central: tent cities in the woods, car break-ins, and a homeless man passed out beside a Dumpster. The brewery hosts tours and beer tastings, but he says it's not in pedestrian-friendly territory for tourists. "We have a lot of people who walk up from downtown, and then obviously they call cabs ... because they get a little scared halfway through their journey," Vick says. "It gets darker, and it gets a little edgier."
But by the light of day, it's easier to believe in Atkins' dream for the neighborhood. Walking by the construction site around noon on his way to get a meal at Crisis Ministries, Maurice Johnson squints up at the building and grins. At 53 years old, he has lived in the area his entire life, and he's happy to see change on the way. "They really need something like that," Johnson says. "It's going to bring new people into the area."