A half mile north of where the Ravenel bridge touches down in Charleston’s peninsula, a new and distinct neighborhood is taking shape.
There’s plenty of debate about what to call this emerging area. Some like “NoMo,” slang for north Morrison Drive, even though it’s more east and west of that street (though Morrison is north of East Bay, which is essentially the same street). Others like the “creative corridor.”
The boundaries also extend well beyond Morrison, so others have tossed out potential names such as Newmarket, The Drum and Upper Edge. There are no clear winner yet.
With all the ambiguity, it’s perhaps not surprising that the developers of the most ambitious chunk — one that covers about 22 parcels around Morrison, upper Meeting, Isabella and Brigade streets — decided to give their project its own name.
And it’s also not surprising that after breaking out a bottle of wine and a computer during a brainstorming session, they thought of its location relative to the new bridge and came up with “Half Mile North.”
It all began with the move to relocate Bird Hardware across Morrison Drive to free up its larger, former site. Then came Edmund’s Oast, SIB, Blue Acorn, Home Team BBQ, Lewis Barbecue and Butcher and Bee, with others poised to open soon.
Raven Cliff CEO Stephen Zoukis says he sees this area as one in a long transition from its past as a largely quiet site of family-owned businesses where Charleston’s Auto Mile once hummed to its more distant future as a taller, vibrant part of the city’s urban footprint.
“We just set out with the idea that we’re just going to reuse what’s there whenever we can and wait 15 years for this land to be very valuable in and of itself,” he says, adding the balancing act is not doing something so new and shiny that drives land values too high too fast while avoiding mediocrity that could slow further redevelopment.
Blake Middleton of The Middleton Group, one of several architects involved here, says the existing, one-story buildings presented a challenge and opportunity.
The opportunity stemmed from their open interiors and the freer hand to tweak buildings that are old but not historic or architecturally significant.
Most received a woodframe awning with a metal roof at their entrance, and a splash of color to liven them up. A few received a tower entry element.
“The biggest challenge was actually trying to retrofit new windows and that into the existing metal siding and having it all work properly,” he says. “Getting the detail right on that was a bit of a struggle.”
What ties the buildings together is not only a somewhat uniform approach to their renovation but also the landscape.
And that’s the work of landscape architect J.R. Kramer of Rermark Studio, whose liberal use of native plants and industrial materials such as corten steel, concrete and recycled glass harks to the past but also gives the neighborhood a fresh new spirit.
“We almost think of this as the new Charleston up here,” he says. “It’s not azaleas and camellias. It’s more modern architecture, and it speaks more of today’s architecture and design and less of historic preservation.”
Kramer says he got his aesthetic inspiration from the area surrounding Bird Hardware’s new home — just across from a former home of Charleston Steel & Metal Co.
He saw a gritty landscape marked by weeds and broken glass in the road, and responded by placing recycled glass in a new sidewalk and native grasses nearby.
The landscape also is marked by courtyards and gathering spots, including the sturdy timber framed shed outside Edmund’s Oast and the space framed by large wooden benches outside Butcher and Bee.
The landscape also includes a rain garden in a parking lot, a bit of urban ecology designed to look nice while it deals with runoff. The short, vertical scouring rush is planted in tight areas within. There are uniform bike racks, and a powder-coated steel structure with cypress inside to hide a dumpster.
The land planning actually was done by Jacob Lindsey before he became the city’s new director of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability.
If the plant palette and materials don’t recall Charleston’s historic urban fabric, some of the spaces might, such as the alley-like passage between the back side of the southern Blue Acorn building between Williman and Isabella.
Zoukis says Raven Cliff has a long-term vision and has been willing to accept a somewhat more modest current cash flow in order to invest more in the design, and the timber-framed pavilion is a prime example. “We’re willing to put more money into the current design because we think it will shorten the time to the payoff, or make the final payoff bigger.”
“It’s very gratifying now that we not only have cars in the parking lot but we have people on the streets,” he adds. “At night, it’s a very different looking thing.”
The irony is while these mediocre buildings have been repurposed in new and exciting ways, those behind the moves recognize that this may be a relatively transient set in the area’s ongoing evolution from outskirts to urbanism.
I suppose the ultimate test will be years from now, to see how many resist further change because they like it the way it is.
Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771 or at twitter.com/RobertFBehre.
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