A trio of tech workers glides northward on the shoulder of Meeting Street Road, T-shirts flapping in the merciful late-summer wind as they pedal their bicycles on a midday hunt for a Japanese food truck. They're coming from Blue Acorn, a booming e-commerce company that built its office in the Upper Peninsula last summer.
The food truck they seek is parked in front of the 1600 Meeting office space, a formerly dilapidated three-story property that seemed like an unlikely place for human habitation just five years ago. The building, like the neighboring Local Works co-working space, is now packed with nonprofits, startups, and studios. Situated in the heart of the Neck, it also serves as an outpost on the final undeveloped frontier of the Charleston peninsula.
City of Charleston officials have big plans for the Upper Peninsula, which includes parts of the Neck, North Central, and the upper Eastside — but those plans aren't firm yet. Urban planners started talking in earnest about the area's future in 2013, when they launched the Upper Peninsula Initiative in a partnership with the Sustainability Institute using a grant from EcoDistricts, a Portland-based nonprofit pushing for environmentally friendly development.
The linchpin of the Upper Peninsula Initiative is the proposed Upper Peninsula Zoning District (UPZD), which is now awaiting a vote from City Council. Properties in the area are currently restricted to four stories in height, but under the UPZD, developers would be able to build up to 15 stories by earning "points" for decreasing stormwater runoff, building vegetated roofs, attaining various levels of LEED green-building certification, incorporating bicycle parking and other mobility measures, using renewable energy, building outdoor public space, and including workforce housing. The more points a developer earns under the scheme, the more stories it would be allowed to build.
Jacob Lindsey, Charleston's newly minted planning director, says the idea of the zoning district is to plan for the city's inevitable growth by laying down groundwork for a development boom. Lindsey's predecessor Tim Keane predicted last year that the peninsula as a whole would gain 25,000 residents in the next 15 years — and the only part of the peninsula with ample room for new construction is the northern end.
"When we began to look at this thing a couple of years back, we all realized that the Upper Peninsula was going to grow, and we sort of had a choice as to whether it was going to be low-value, suburban-type development or whether it was going to be high-value, urban, walkable, mixed-use, and sustainable type development," Lindsey says. "Because it really can go either way."
'It was a little rougher'
Even without a directive from the planning office, the Upper Peninsula is changing. The area is still hemmed in by bulk storage facilities, toxic brownfield sites, and strip clubs, but its middle is filling in with tech startups, new businesses, and renovated homes.
The space between Morrison Drive and Meeting Street, which has defied naming for years now — Cool Blow? NoMo? Creative Corridor? — has lurched into redevelopment mode in recent years. The Big Work Fitness Factory, a 24-hour gym, opened up in a warehouse where a man used to house his Porsche collection. Revelry Brewing Co. hosts tastings in a warehouse next door, across the street from a field where adult kickball players host league matches. Across Morrison Drive, construction crews are rushing to finish a luxury student apartment tower in the shadow of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge. Farther north, two barbecue joints are under construction within wafting distance of one another.
A complex of mechanics' garages at the corner of Romney and Hanover streets is all but empty now that the property has been sold to a Connecticut-based LLC, but one tenant is hanging on until a mid-September move-out date.
John Pasoquen, shop manager for the Seven Star Luxury taxi and limousine company, works alone in the shop on a weekday afternoon. He remembers bringing a gun to work for safety when he started working at the shop just two-and-a-half years ago.
"We'd be in the garage and hear gunshots, guys racing their cars up and down the street doing drive-by shootings," Pasoquen says. "It's pretty scary, during broad daylight."
Pasoquen says his company scrambled to locate property on the peninsula when they learned their lease was ending, and they ended up choosing a spot farther north on Meeting Street Road.
A neighboring tenant, a Subaru repair shop called Suby Doctors, has already moved to Rivers Avenue in North Charleston. Owner Mike Key says he watched the neighborhood around his old shop change slowly over the six years he spent at the location. "It was a little rougher," Key says. "There were a couple more abandoned buildings, a little bit more land."
The area is still home to industrial and shipping-related companies, as well as a bevy of auto mechanics, particularly in the Neck. But the new businesses moving in tend to be of a different breed.
Exhibit A: Half Mile North, a gleaming new office complex between Meeting and Morrison, once housed a collection of warehouses and mechanics' garages. It is now home to several young, tech-centric, rapidly growing companies that often get mentioned in discussions of Charleston's so-called Silicon Harbor. One of them, Blue Acorn, moved into a former shaved-ice warehouse on Williman Street last summer, painting the interior stark white with royal-blue I-beams along the high ceiling. The company is already building an expansion office on a former storage lot across Williman Street to house its growing staff of 115 employees.
Kevin Eichelberger, CEO of Blue Acorn, says he was looking for ample parking and an easy commute when his company outgrew its old headquarters next door to BoomTown, farther south on Rutledge Avenue.
By moving to the Upper Peninsula, Eichelberger says he was able to avoid the tourist traffic, summer floods, and parking snafus that he would have experienced south of the Crosstown. He says he was also attracted to the area's walkability and bikeability, giving employees the opportunity to stroll over to Edmund's Oast or the Tattooed Moose for a drink after work.
The move north has precedent, he says. Downtown residents raised their eyebrows years ago when Taco Boy landed on Huger Street, far beyond the northern boundary of gentrification at the time. The same thing happened with the construction of One Cool Blow, a condominium and office complex just a few blocks farther north. Now Half Mile North is pushing the boundary again.
"I think that's all it takes is someone to lay down and plant a flag," Eichelberger says. "Then everyone kind of says, 'Oh, that seems like a great place.' I wasn't planning to be a pioneer. I just said this was a great location, and I see a lot of promise in the area."
Northward, ever northward
The northward trajectory of redevelopment is all too familiar to Barbara Wilson, who lives in a house on Isabella Street in the Upper Peninsula. As a child, she lived in the Ansonborough Homes housing project, much farther south near the current site of the S.C. Aquarium. Her family moved into her current home in 1967, well before the projects were demolished in 1996 due to long-disputed claims of soil contamination.
- Paul Bowers file photo
Some African Americans in Charleston have since suspected that the Ansonborough Homes demolition was meant to clear the way for high-value development and force black residents toward North Charleston. Today she sees no trace of her former home.
"It's just like there's no history of the black folks. Some of them carelessly lost their property, and others were forced to leave," Wilson says. "We moved from down there up here. Now they're trying to push us out from up here."
As rents rise and prospectors start snatching up properties in the Upper Peninsula, some city leaders are looking to protect families who have lived in the area for generations. City Councilman Robert Mitchell says he will push to ensure that the new zoning district includes incentives for developers to include housing for families making less than 60 percent of the area median income.
"That's the only way to do it because the city doesn't have money to keep putting [affordable housing] in," Mitchell says. "If we talk about raising taxes, people are going to kill us on that, so we have to find other mechanisms as far as public-private partnerships. That's just what we have to do now."
But even a workforce housing guarantee is only good for 30 years after a building's construction, according to the proposed zoning, and rising property values could put current residents out of their properties due to increases in rent or property taxes.
Kate Nevin, founder of the nonprofit organization Enough Pie, has given the issue some thought as a member of the Upper Peninsula Initiative's Equitable Development Committee. "I think we can look around the country and see what some cities are doing in the face of gentrification," Nevin says. She says members of her committee are looking into programs like Philadelphia's Longtime Owner Occupants Program, which offers tax discounts to longtime residents of gentrifying neighborhoods.
Wilson isn't sure what the future holds for her neighborhood, but if she sells her house, she says she doubts she could afford another home on the peninsula. Rents in her neighborhood have begun to skyrocket already. Around the corner on Hanover Street, a homeowner recently stripped a crumbling one-story house down to its weary bones, raised it on stilts, and renovated it into a sleek modern domicile — the kind of building that only Charleston would bother to save.
The original 1920 deed to Wilson's property lists the neighborhood as Aderose Terrace, but she's never heard anyone call it that. She doesn't know its proper name, but she knows it's home. She's taking in the hot September night on her porch beside a motion-activated floodlight that keeps winking off when she goes too long without moving on her backless wooden chair. The trains have quit clanking along the railroad across Morrison Drive, and, but for the occasional rumble of a semi truck, the air is quiet and still. She says she's keeping an eye out for changes.
"When they sit in their little planning meetings, they need to have the neighborhood people there to express how they feel about it," Wilson says. "I mean, I don't have a problem with change. I really don't. But the city don't do nothing for us."