A chat with HCF regarding initial plans for old gas station
By Patra Taylor
Given the intense focus on the development of Union Pier, Winslow Hastie is excited … even thrilled … to expound upon Historic Charleston Foundation’s (HCF) latest acquisition of the former Century Service Station. Located at the corner of Ashley and Wentworth avenues near the heart of Harleston Village, the purchase of the old filing station in February came soon after Hastie’s fifth anniversary as the president and CEO of the foundation. He served as the chief preservation office for the 11 years prior to his appointment as head of the non-profit organization founded in 1947.
After serving on the frontline of battles raging regarding the development of Union Pier (see article by Jay Williams, Jr. on page 2) and other huge projects such as the proposed seven-story apartment complex at 295 Calhoun, Hastie says, “To be honest, I’m excited to be talking about something else.”
The foundation’s latest project is an historic, brick-masonry building that was built as the Century Service Station in 1929. The building was expanded in the 1930s with the addition of two garage bays. Prior to 1929, 80 Ashley was home to a wood frame corner/grocery store that was lost in a fire.
The purchase of the old service station was anything but an impulse-buy on the part of HCF. Through many years, Hastie and his team kept a close eye on the property, watching as efforts by the private sector to save the building and put it back into use failed due to its residential zoning and location in an area prone to flooding. Consequently, HCF felt compelled by its mission to intervene, purchase the building and aid the community in solving this intractable problem.
“We already own a historic gas station at 108 Meeting St. at the corner of Chalmers and Meeting streets, which serves as one of our retail stores,” notes Hastie. “So it’s a building type we’re already interested in.”
The property was purchased through HCF’s Frances R. Edmunds Endangered Properties Fund. Created in 1957, this revolving fund for the preservation of historic buildings and neighborhoods has saved six city blocks in the Ansonborough neighborhood and 140 historic buildings throughout Charleston.
“At this juncture, we’re not really focused on re-sale and marketing of the property,” states Hastie. “We feel it’s premature for that. Our primary goal is to save the building — one of the few historic service stations left on the peninsula — and sell it to a preservation-minded buyer once consensus is reached on an appropriate, neighborhood-scaled commercial use.” Hastie makes no bones about the fact he prefers a commercial use over a residential use. The property us currently zoned for residential use.
According to Hastie, the property at 80 Ashley Ave. has been vacant for more than 30 years. Most recently, it has suffered from “demolition-by-neglect,” a slow process of allowing a building to deteriorate right before our eyes. “Unfortunately,” notes Hastie, “the city has not done a great job enforcing their demolition-by-neglect rules.”
After the finalization of the sale, HCF wasted no time taking action to save the historic structure. Because the building needs immediate stabilization to prevent its collapse, preservation engineers were on site almost immediately. “We doubt the building can survive another hurricane season,” admits Hastie. “We will select a preservation contractor very soon and get to work.”
Areas of most concern are replacement of missing internal arches and deteriorating masonry. “Our structural engineer will determine if we need to put in earthquake rods to pull the walls back in,” Hastie says. “We’re prepared to do that … to spend the money if that’s needed.”
In addition to attending to the immediate needs of the physical structure, HCF has already hired historian, Brittany LaVelle Tulla, to research and prepare an in-depth history of the property to includes images. “We have very little in our archives about the property,” says Hastie. “Doing that research is always really important to us. In our archives, we hold property research on historic buildings and properties all over the Lowcountry, particularly in the historic district. Hopefully, Brittany will find some great information and images to add to our archives.”
In terms of the structure, restoration of the physical building seems the easiest part of this project. Finding a viable use for the historic building that serves both the neighborhood and pleases the neighbors will likely take time, which is something HCF has plenty of.
Hastie is emphatic about the intentions of HCF. “I want to be transparent that in buying this property it is our intention to eventually sell it to a commercial buyer. What we would like to see is what we call a ‘neighborhood-serving commercial use’ such as a café or a bookstore or a flower shop … something the neighborhood can interact with… something that becomes part of the fabric of that neighborhood. I must believe there’s a use out there like that.”
The big issues that concern people in the neighborhood have with a commercial building in their neighborhood are typically trash, smells, noise, traffic and parking. “I get it,” states Hastie. “But for us, it’s important to step back a little bit and look at the bigger picture. From a policy standpoint, we feel strongly that these small, typically corner commercial stores are really an important part of the fabric of Charleston. It makes for an urban neighborhood that people can walk to and get a cup of coffee or whatever it is. I’m not saying it’s going to be a coffee shop. It creates a little activity on a prominent corner. I think the neighborhood could use that, but I also think it could be done in a way that isn’t negative to the neighborhood.
Hastie points to actual policies in place in the city’s preservation plan that don’t just preserve the physical building, but also preserve the use. “Unfortunately, the way our zoning code works is when things go to residential, it’s very difficult to bring them back. In looking at a broader policy initiative, here at the Historic Charleston Foundation we’re talking internally about trying to amend the zoning code to give exceptions to historic commercial spaces from having to go through such a rigorous process. We’ll see where that goes.”
Another concern of citizens is the “camel’s nose under the tent” issue … that once a commercial use is brought back, it would be much easier for incremental changes in that usage. For example, if a café on the property is approved to serving beer and wine until 6 p.m., what’s to stop it from eventually evolving into a bar with live music and a midnight closing time?
“It’s the fear of the unknown,” he says. “We’ll try to eliminate that to the extent we can.”
Hastie says that prior to re-sale, HCF would work to impose reasonable restrictions on property use in perpetuity.
“Of course, we don’t want to render the property economically unviable. We don’t want to restrict it so much that future uses just can’t work there. We’ve got to figure out a balance because, obviously, if you’re putting a restriction on in perpetuity, that’s serious and we need to be careful about how we do that. I think that’s a tool we have that we can offer to the neighborhood, and we’re willing to do it.
“As we begin the process of reaching out to people in the neighborhood, I’m sure we can find common ground,” concludes Hastie. “I hope people trust us and understand that we have integrity, and that we care about this community. We’re not going anywhere.”
A long-time contributor to the Charleston Mercury, Patra Taylor currently serves as the newspaper’s managing editor. She is also the author of One Christmas, a novel released in October 2022.