Charleston Place Turns 10


Hotel project transformed city

It changed – and arguably saved – a city.

Ten years ago tomorrow Charleston Place filled the first of its 443 rooms, nine long years after the city, seeking to revive the gasping downtown business district, first proposed a large-scale hotel, conference and shopping complex on a vacant lot. What followed has been nothing short of phenomenal.

"You can’t overstate the importance of Charleston Place," said Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., who, in his first term 19 years ago, spearheaded the campaign to build and partially finance the controversial project.

"It’s a different place than it was in 1975," Riley said of lower King Street. "Almost every building has been renovated in one form or another. So many new shops and restaurants. And the movement of people. It’s a marvelous movement of people."

Indeed, the Sept. 2, 1986, opening of "The Omni" – named for the hotel company that once managed it – ushered in a new era for the city, one in which Charleston would be catapulted from a quaint-but crumbling antebellum town to a restored and highly polished destination that is the envy of city planners everywhere.

The direct economic impact of Charleston Place is sizable: The complex is one of the city’s biggest taxpayers and one of the peninsula’s largest employers, injecting 550 jobs and a $10 million payroll into an area that had a 15 percent unemployment rate in the 1970s.

The four-star property, which averages 2,400 guests a week, has been lauded in influential travel publications, drawing national and international attention to Charleston. It put the city on the map as a convention destination, which led the owners to spend $5.5 million to restore the art-deco Riviera Theatre across the street. When finished, the Riviera will reopen as a meeting and banquet center.

Then there is the indirect impact. Since Charleston Place opened, for instance, the number of visitors to the city has more than doubled to 5 million annually, making tourism a $2-billion-a-year industry locally.

Downtown property values also have soared. Scores of hotel rooms have been built following Charleston Place’s lead. Major office buildings have gone up nearby, housing, banks, law practices, insurance agencies, stock brokerages, real estate companies and accounting firms. Many new restaurants have opened.

Moreover, gung-ho retailers – including national chains more familiar with malls than Main Street – have breathed new life into sagging properties and transformed Charleston into a highly regarded shopping destination. Last week’s opening of Saks Fifth Avenue on King Street is an example. The Limited Inc. chain also is bullish on the street, with plans to open three stores there.

"You wouldn’t be seeing the national tenants if it weren’t for Charleston Place," said veteran real estate developer Frank Brumley. "It’s the locomotive that pulls the train."

"We’d have to say it has exceeded expectations," added Lawrence 0. Thompson, the city’s economic development director and an early backer of Charleston Place. "The ripple effect has been more like a tidal wave. It touches so many things that it’s probably unaccountable."

‘An asset’
Few would disagree. Not even the project’s earliest skeptics.

Downtown attorney J. Rutledge Young was a city councilman when the complex was proposed. Misgivings about the project’s financing prompted him to vote against it in 1977. (The city eventually would lend $10 million toward the development.)

"Too many ifs," Young said at the time. The project "may be the best thing that ever happened to Charleston," he continued. "Who knows? Years from now we can all smile and say what a wonderful deal it was. And I’ll be the first to say I was wrong to worry."

Young laughed last week when asked whether he still harbors any doubts.

"Absolutely none," he said. "If you go anywhere in the United States and tell people that Saks is building in a town of 90,000 with a metropolitan area of 500,000, they’ll say, ‘No, not Saks Fifth Avenue!’ The success of Charleston Place has led to Saks coming in and making that kind of investment."

Maier Hyman, who initially opposed Charleston Place, couldn’t’ agree more. He needled city officials 15 years ago by publicizing a "condemnation sale" at his wholesale clothing shop on Meeting Street. (The city actually had bought his property so that Charleston Place could be built.)

"I think it’s the best thing that has ever happened to Charleston," Hyman said recently, recalling his boyhood, when the Market area reeked of urine. "That’s the keystone of pulling the tourist business to Charleston."

Today, Hyman’s sons operate restaurants along the same row of storefronts where his business once stood.

"They do very well there, so I think Charleston Place has been wonderful for the city," he said. "I don’t think anybody would disagree with me on that."

The evolution of Charleston Place:. A 1 9-year Journey

Sept. 29, 1988- Belk-Robinson, which opened its department store at 232 King Street In 1926, tears down seven nearby buildings nit the northeast corner of Market and King streets for more parking. Six months later, Belk would close its 232 King store and tear it down, too.

Dec 9, 1975 – Charleston Mayor .Joseph P. Riley Jr. Is elected on a platform of reviving downtown, where unemployment approached 15 percent in some neighborhoods and gross revenues had slipped 12 percent since 1970.

Feb. 28, 1978- J.C. Penney closes its downtown store at 240 King Street and moves to Charles Town Square in North Charleston. The abandoned store site also would become part of Charleston’s Place

June 7, 1977 – Charleston City Council appropriates $12,500 to fund a feasibility study for a hotel and convention center on the former Belk lot.

July 25, 1977- Holywell Corp. of Virginia proposes to buy the old Belk lot and develop what was originally dubbed Charleston Center.

Oct. 18, 1977- Conceptual plans are unveiled. They show a 14-story hotel with restaurants, shops and parking garage, all of which would prompt opposition from neighborhood groups and preservationists. Estimated price Is $37 million to $40 million.

April 5, 1978- City lands a $4.15 million federal grant for the project, the first of three major federal grants.

May 23, 1978 – Holywell says it has modified building plans. The main change is a smaller parking garage With 500 stalls.

Aug. 31, 1978-in a setback for Riley the S.C. Supreme Court said the city’s contract with Gould was an unconstitutional taking of property because the city condemned it to turn around and sell it or lease it to a private entity.

Dec. 24,1980 -An appeals court rules against project opponents, in effect ending the numerous legal challenges in Charleston Center.

April 5, 1981 – News reports show the project’s cost has increased to $60 million.

May 29, 1981 – Demolition work begins, beating a June I deadline. "A great day for our city," Mayor Riley said.

Jan. 5, 1983- Theodore Gould, lire original developer and president of Holywell, says he cannot obtain construction financing and gives the city a 180 day option to buy his property and plans for Charleston Center.

Jan. 30, 1983- The city selects two Baltimore developers, Robert Embry and David Cordish, to take over the project. Within days the projected cost of Charleston Center is increased to $75 million.

May 16, 1983- The hotel is further downscaled – to eight stories at the center, four stories along King, Market and Meeting streets.

June 24, 1983- Detroit- based shopping mall magnate A. Alfred Taubman joins the development group, as does Taubman Centers vice chairman Robert C. Larson.

July 1984- Project name is changed to Charleston Place.

Feb. 7, 1985- Construction begins.

Jan. 20, 1986 Nine years after it was first proposed, Charleston Place announces It will open Sept. 2, l986.

July 15, 1988- 1,200 people apply for 500 hotel positions.

Sept. 2, 1986- Partly finished, The Omni at Charleston Place opens. The estimated cost is $75 million.

Oct. 22, 1988- Charleston Place’s commercial tenants open for business; They include national retailers such as Banana Republic, Brookstone, The Gap, Crabtree & Evelyn, Gucci, The Limited, Laura Ashley, Victoria’s Secret arid Talbot’s.

Nov. 22, 1986 – Grand opening of Charleston Place is held.

April 1989 -Workers start repairing construction problems that caused extensive drainage problems and water leaks at Charleston Place. The two-year multimillion-dollar repair job required up to 50 guest rooms at a time to be closed.

Sept. 21,1989 – Hurricane Hugo strikes, hurting the local tourism industry. A national recession during the following years also would hurt the visitor business.

Oct. 9, 1995 – San Containers Ltd., the owner of the famed Orient-Express Hotels Inc., announces that he has acquired about 20 percent of Charleston Place and hopes to attain 5-star status for the hotel. The Omni name is dropped when Orient-Express takes over.

February 1996 -Charleston Place buys the long shuttered Riviera Theatre from the city for $1.2 million and starts work on a $3.8 million renovation to convert the art-deco facility.

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