One developer is hoping to transform downtown Myrtle Beach by tearing down unused buildings and selling upscale lofts.
His idea? Put retail and office space on the first floors and living units above for people who are looking for a funky urban living environment through a project called Palmetto Lofts.
It's a trend that has taken hold along the Grand Strand as The Market Common brings the live/work/play concept on a massive scale to Myrtle Beach's south end.
The 113-acre urban village will transform into a town of 181 apartments, 1,441 townhomes and condominiums and 600,000 square feet of high-end retail and restaurant space.
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Proponents say live/work development saves residents gas money and transportation time, creates synergy and community in one area and could revive downtown Myrtle Beach.
They're not new nationwide, though. They're not even new in South Carolina.
Conway and Georgetown already have such projects, but on a smaller scale than those now being proposed.
Among the new projects, Dock Street Communities is building live/work townhomes off Grissom Parkway, around The Market Common and in Sunset Beach, N.C.
Large-scale single family developments are also adding their own live/work town centers, like Centex Homes at RiverGrand in Little River. And local developers will soon build the same concept at Woodsong in Shallotte, N.C., and another loft-style project at Sunset Quarters in Sunset Beach, N.C.
Both Dock Street and McCaffery Interests - developer of The Market Common - have had success with live/work villages. McCaffery's Market Common in Arlington, Va., won six national awards, and Dock Street was the first to bring the concept to the Charlotte area.
Real estate agents say these units are selling faster than conventional neighborhoods, and planners hope bringing the vision to Myrtle Beach's tired, lifeless downtown will lure people and a new energy, working in tandem with whatever comes next to the site of the former Myrtle Beach Pavilion Amusement Park.
Palmetto Lofts "would be a bold step in the right direction for stimulating a reinvestment in the downtown area," said Myrtle Beach Planning Director Jack Walker.
Robin Roberts, developer and architect of Palmetto Lofts, has been dreaming of this kind of downtown infill development since he was inspired to write a thesis on mixed-use developments while visiting Italy.
His thesis at Clemson University outlined plans for the kind of urban village that is now becoming reality on the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base in The Market Common.
And as energy costs rise and traffic becomes more troublesome, many home buyers are deciding a live/work village is the most economical and healthy place to call home.
In a way, it's a way to revert back to the style of old.
Some business owners in historic downtown Georgetown have been living above their businesses for years.
Sid Hood and partner Sally Swineford have been living above the restaurant they own for 22 years. Hood said he chose to live above The River Room for the convenience, especially when he leaves the restaurant late.
"We enjoy it and wouldn't have it any other way," Hood said.
Developers of the Black Water Market in Conway started the live/work development trend there two years ago when they added apartments above their retail center. The property burned in 1997 and the developers decided it would fit with Conway's downtown atmosphere to build six upscale apartments above the planned six retail stores.
"With gas prices now, it's really beneficial to live and work and do all your stuff in one place," said Russell Fowler, developer and one of the owners of the men's clothing store in the market, The Haberdashery.
"We had a single doctor living in one of our apartments and he said to me, 'Do you realize that there are 24 places to eat within four blocks of here?'."
Realtors selling Dock Street's live/work townhomes at The Market Common say even in a slow market, these units are selling faster than conventional townhome communities.
"Considering the market we're in, these have been the hottest things at the beach," said Penny Boling, president of Century 21 Boling, who's selling the units.
Forty of the live/work townhomes sold in the 30 days after The Market Common Groundbreaking on Oct. 12, said developer Sam Burns.
More than 33 have sold at the Grissom Parkway location and Sunset Beach location in the last six months.
"This is a tremendous response to an innovative new type of townhomes in a down market," Burns said.
Dock Street's prices start at $225,000 for a townhome and $325,000 for a live/work townhome.
Will it work?
Palmetto Lofts will be fancier and more expensive.
The five floors will have retail space on the first floor, office space on the second floor and three "loft condos" with large terraces on the top floors. The first building will have ocean views.
Roberts said he knows the concept is new for downtown Myrtle Beach. That's why he's planning to build the first building at cost, hoping that once buyers see it, they'll want more.
"If you build it, they will come," he maintained.
He's got other abandoned buildings lined up to continue the lofts once the first building sells. The first one will go in at 809 Main St.
Starting at $639,900, the lofts will offer direct sunlight on large terraces.
"I want to see potted palms and lots of greenery along those terraces," Roberts said.
A historic-looking exterior, private lobby, elevator, wet bar and a modern, funky feel will fill each loft.
Roberts knows it could be a hard sell for downtown Myrtle Beach - a district that has been going downhill for years.
Lack of parking, the presence of homeless shelters and a string of failed downtown businesses have made folks leery of investing in the area.
But Roberts believes it takes one person to start the change - and his vision fits with other downtown business and property owners who want to see a sidewalk cafe type district downtown.
Such a vision seems even more possible once a mixed-use development comes to the Pavilion site. Property owner Burroughs & Chapin Co. Inc has not said anything more about what will happen in that prime spot.
Roberts worries the site may sit untouched for a while.
Yet, he's made the first step toward a new vision - renovating an abandoned building at 807 Main St. into a modern office for his three businesses, Palmetto Architecture, Palmetto Development and Palmetto Studios.
He's picky about what kind of business goes into his building, turning down a bar that wanted to locate below him. He'll do the same for Palmetto Lofts.
"If people are buying a luxury loft, they need to know the businesses below them are respectful," he said.
Mixed-use developers say young entrepreneurs, young professionals and retirees are attracted to these walkable communities.
At Urban Land Institute's fall meeting in Denver, experts said Generation Y buyers - those born between 1981 and 1999 - are drawn to urban infill locations with ample light and green space. Also known as the "echo boomers," these buyers want to live in culturally and ethnically diverse neighborhoods with plenty of community gathering space, said Gadi Kaufmann, managing director and chief executive officer of Robert Charles Lesser & Co., LLC in Bethesda, Md.
Sam Burns, president of Dock Street Communities, said he's finding about two-thirds of his buyers are young entrepreneurs who want to open their first business. The rest are retirees who want to run some kind of small business.
One young entrepreneur, Victor Vitale, 29, says he loves the village concept and bought a live/work townhouse at St. James Square off Grissom Parkway in Myrtle Beach.
Vitale owns a cigar marketing firm in New Hampshire but is thinking of starting a hair salon or dry cleaning business at St. James.
"I like the close-knit community concept. I grew up in urban Philadelphia where there's corner stores and local cafes," Vitale said.
Another buyer, Benny Rappa, 41, plans to open an Italian take-out restaurant in the same community.
He already owns one restaurant, Benny Rappa's Trattoria in North Myrtle Beach, but loved the village idea so much he bought a unit at St. James Square.
He wants to rent the upstairs to his cooks or employees to live in and cut down on their commute.
"I love the village concept. I'm from up in New York and it brings back old times where everyone lives in the apartments above. You don't have to get in your car. Everybody can walk," he said.
Rappa envisions neighborhood residents walking across the street to pick up some hot italian take-out for dinner.
With three live/work developments coming to Brunswick County, some real estate agents say that may be too much for an area that has mostly older buyers.
"I am concerned that we will have too many of that [style]," said Cathy Six, new homes director at Coldwell Banker Sloane in Sunset Beach.
Investing in downtown
Land-use industry experts say energy costs will start to play a more important role in home-buying decisions.
They say the way to reduce energy consumption is to build infill projects, more downtown housing and mixed-use urban villages, said ULI's senior resident fellows at the fall meeting.
But some analysts and planners are concerned about Palmetto Lofts' future because of the struggling downtown environment and the high prices.
"Our downtown area is not like Chicago where you have a lot of executive people looking to live to be close to work. It's pretty bleak down there. But if the Pavilion [redevelopment] rejuvenates the community like people are hoping and you start having nice restaurants and retail, then that's neat," said Tom Maeser, president of the Fortune Academy of Real Estate.
"But what I've found is that buyers are very, very bad at looking at the 'What ifs.' They will look around at what's there now and that's a hard sell."
At $600,000, buyers could choose oceanfront condos instead of downtown living, Maeser said.
Roberts hopes the city will see the vision of the downtown business owners and change parking and zoning rules to help them.
If it succeeds, Walker said it will signal that consumers are ready for a 24-hour vibrant downtown. It would also open more opportunities from the banking and development industries which haven't been willing to risk investing in downtown, Walker said.
"I'd love to see it happen," he said. "Housing of all types in the downtown area is critical."
Developments on the Grand Strand:
The Market Common: Myrtle Beach
Dock Street Communities: Two projects in Myrtle Beach and one in Sunset Beach, N.C.
Centex Homes at RiverGrand: Little River
Woodsong: Shallotte, N.C.
Black Water Market: Conway
Sunset Quarters in Sunset Beach, N.C.