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Stuart Dean

Charleston's Upscale Condos
Could Get New Life as Niche Boutique Hotels

By Allyson Bird, The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Apr. 12, 2010--Quietly, a very un-Charleston inn opened this month next to Yo Burrito at King and Wentworth streets.

As early as this year, a vacant two-story building on the other side of the Mexican restaurant could be demolished to make space for a similar operation. And another property across the street called High Society, also originally billed as condominiums, is just about ready to welcome hotel guests who book online.

These boutique hotels -- personalized inns that break from brand names and usually command a higher level of service and coziness -- thrive in places such as New York, San Francisco and European cities.

They also seem to be emerging in Charleston's busiest corridors for a few reasons: They fit into available space in historic districts; they appeal to a new class of visitor here; and they make an ideal alternative to their original use as high-end condominiums, some of which hit the housing market just in time for its collapse.

Tradd and Weesie Newton, the couple behind Fleet Landing restaurant, acquired a nearby three-unit bed-and-breakfast-style inn on Vendue Range about a year ago. Tradd Newton said his clientele includes families and, frequently, foreign visitors.

"We have a little bit more flexibility in how we can work with the customer and customize their stay," he said.

But boutiques are not new to the city, according to Helen Hill, executive director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. She noted that some of the more established lodgings on the peninsula, such as the John Rutledge House Inn, fit that same model.

"I really believe everybody else is just catching up with Charleston," Hill said. "We've always been in the boutique hotel business."

New approach

The Restoration on King, which sits atop the Gap and Lucky Brand Jeans stores, opened its doors to a crowd of travel writers April 1.

Decorated in browns, teal and robin's egg blue fabrics that contrast with exposed brick and hardwood floors, the rooms carry a New York City feel but showcase locally-inspired artwork.

The property's name gives a nod to the Restoration period of British history in which a monarch returned to rule the country. It also reflects the building's physical rebirth after hitting the market as The Exchange luxury condominiums at precisely the wrong time.

Owned by a group of local investors operating under the name King Wentworth Associates and managed by Charlestowne Hotels, the property spans three floors and has 16 one- and two-bedroom suites. They range from just less than 600 square feet to 1,300 square feet.

Michael Tall, Charlestowne Hotels' senior vice president, compared the trend toward boutique hotels to the BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival. They don't appeal to the older, AAA-rated mansion home guests but a new demographic of mid-30s to mid-40s travelers looking for upscale but forward-thinking accommodations.

"Not only does it offer something that currently isn't in place, but Charleston is kind of growing as a city to be more cosmopolitan while still not losing the feel of the place," Tall said.

Rates range from the mid-$300s to $800 nightly, depending on the room. Tall envisions rooftop parties and cooking demonstrations in guests' rooms. He also hopes to work closely with a similar property planned for next door.

Apartment to investment

Neil Stevenson's architecture firm operates across the hall from some of the rooms inside The Restoration. He first landed in this space 14 years ago, renting it as an apartment for $450 a month.

He remembers having a realization a few years back: "I've got to buy this building. I don't ever want to move."

So he and Yo Burrito founder Nick Powers formed Wentworth Brothers LLC and did just that.

At least three years ago, Stevenson began planning a boutique hotel around his treasured home with a business partner, John David Madison, a leader in the tourism industry who previously held top positions at the Mills House Hotel, Wild Dunes Resort and Kiawah Island Golf Resort.

They received preliminary zoning and conceptual approval and, if the right investor comes along, could have a 33,000-square-foot project in the works by year's end, Stevenson said.

They call the proposal The Madison Hotel, a 35-room inn with six stories, including a rooftop bar and pool. It would spring up from a vacant storefront, wedged between his current building and a city garage.

They plan to construct it with the environment in mind, even creating a wall of plants on the building's south side to cool it. The hotel would use the second floor of another building on King Street, above Talbots, for a meeting space and spa.

Stevenson calls the scheme for the Madison "contemporary" and "chic" but, like the Restoration, it plans to highlight local culture. He envisions putting a different Charleston artist's work in each room and then giving each of those artists "a killer bar tab" to increase the likelihood that guests would spend an evening chatting with them.

Conceptual plans call for limestone and zinc, formidable materials. Stevenson said that perspective helps keep him patient with these types of projects.

"It's going to be around for hundreds of years," he said. "If it takes six or 10 years to plan, that's not such a big deal."

Room to grow

In addition to the smaller, more intimate hotels cropping up downtown, a few larger lodging projects also appear primed for construction in downtown Charleston.

--An eight-story hotel at the former Charleston County library site at 404 King St. became hung up in court but could move forward again after a decision last week. Developer Michael Bennett of Bennett Hofford Co. once described it as "Charleston's version of the Waldorf."

The city zoning board in 2007 granted a variance for the building's height. Preservation groups took that decision to court, and a judge found that the record from that decision lacked the necessary information for a ruling as to whether the board appropriately granted the variance. A city attorney drafted findings from the 2007 decision, which the zoning board approved Tuesday. Those facts now go back to the judge.

--A hotel at Meeting and Wolfe streets, originally proposed for 180 rooms and also condominiums more than three years ago, received approval Tuesday from the zoning board for new plans.

Charlotte-based Tara Group hopes to construct a five-story inn on land it purchased in 2006 for $2.5 million. Its new proposal skirts the Burris Discount Beverages property that stalled its previous attempt when a tenant refused to release its lease. The revived development plan calls for 115 rooms and no residential element.

--The Holiday Inn at Calhoun and Meeting streets plans to add 50 rooms, giving it a total of 176. The hotel's owner purchased land to the south of the current structure with plans to tear down an existing office building to make way for the expansion.

--Developer John K. Dewberry is proposing to transform the former Mendel Rivers Federal Building on Meeting Street, across from Marion Square, into a 120-room luxury hotel.

Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594 or


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