East End buildings ready for change
The intersection of Elizabeth and Washington streets in Charleston's East End has undergone a dramatic transformation over the last decade.
The Bluegrass Kitchen opened in 2005, and neighboring Tricky Fish and Little India opened in 2008 and 2010, respectively.
In 2011, new streetlights and illuminated street signs were installed at the intersection as part of a replacement project around the Capitol building.
Events like HallowEast and the St. Patrick's Day Pub Crawl, both organized by East End Main Street, have brought hundreds of people to Washington and Elizabeth streets.
But two sore spots remain, the New China building at 1599 Washington St. E., and the building across Elizabeth Street, at 1601 Washington St. E.
While the New China building has yet to find a tenant, plans are in the works to return 1601 Washington St. E. back into a viable home for business and residents.
The New China building has been vacant for about a decade, and the "For Rent" sign in the building's window doesn't appear to be coming down any time soon.
"The demand is there, but it takes two to make it happen," said East End Main Street Executive Director Ric Cavender.
For years, CURA officials and East End Main Street have been trying to get the building filled, but negotiations between prospective tenants and the building's owner, Phillip Chin, keep falling through.
"Four different entrepreneurs were interested in the space and couldn't get a deal worked out," Cavender said.
Most recently, Chris Chaber, owner of the Empty Glass on Elizabeth Street, announced plans in the spring of 2012 to lease the building for use as a live music venue, particularly for bands that attract larger crowds.
Chaber's request to serve alcohol at the New China building under a conditional use permit from the city was approved, and it appeared the building would see life once again.
But, that deal fell through. Chaber couldn't be reached for comment for this story.
Before that, Chuck Hamsher, owner of the Purple Moon downtown, said in 2010 he was planning to open an art gallery in the building along with space for conferences and classes. The deal was nixed later that year after Hamsher said Chin's contractors failed to meet a number of deadlines for renovation work.
The building got its namesake from the New China Restaurant, which moved to the location in 1971 and closed in 2001, according to Daily Mail archives. When the restaurant closed, it was owned by Dickie and Delcie Chin.
The restaurant's owners filed their last annual report for the restaurant with the West Virginia Secretary of State's office in 2003. Their business license was revoked in 2004.
The New China building has been a thorn in CURA's side for years. In the late 2000s, CURA threatened to force a buyout of the building if Phillip Chin did not make a specific number of renovations to the building. The buyout would have been permitted under the East End Community Renewal Plan.
After missing several deadlines, Chin finally completed the renovations, his attorney said in 2010.
CURA Director Jim Edwards confirmed that most improvements CURA requested were made.
Cavender said despite the fact that the building remains empty, the renovations at least improved the building's appearance.
"I'm really proud of the partnership we have with CURA and the work we did to assist the owner of that building," he said. "We did as much as we possibly could."
Unlike the New China building, 1601 Washington St. E. appears to have a brighter immediate future.
CURA will likely take ownership of that building once the property emerges from bankruptcy court proceedings, something Edwards said could happen "any day now."
The building was built in the early 20th Century, Edwards said. Storefronts and retail space are on the first floor, and the second floor was most recently used for apartment space.
But time has taken its toll.
The building has been mostly or completely empty for several years. Various furniture and debris can be seen through the dusty windows that haven't been boarded up.
A recent appraisal for CURA noted that the cost to restore the building to modern building code was more than the cost of demolishing the structure, giving the building an appraised value of $0.
Before that appraisal, a previous estimate put the value of the building at $65,000, Edwards said.
That doesn't mean it can't be rehabilitated, however.
"It's an important part of the fabric of that commercial district," Edwards said.
Edwards said once CURA obtains the property, the organization will likely fund rehabilitation work and secure leases for part or all of the building, instead of immediately trying to resell the property to a private investor in its current condition.
"The concern is if we turn it over into the private sector, there's a chance it will not be redeveloped to its capability," he said.
Therefore, CURA intends to make the building an attractive investment so that once it's out of CURA's hands, the new owner will be more likely to take care of it.
That plan is still subject to a board vote once CURA obtains the building. A final purchase price has not been set.
The building has a colorful past.
In the 1980s, it was home to The Lobby, a club where a fatal shooting occurred in 1987. After that, the building was Tilt Daddy's until the early 1990s, when Capitol Lounge - likely one of the most notorious tenants - took its place.
Capitol Lounge was the scene of several particularly violent episodes, including numerous bar fights, a stabbing in 1993 and a shooting in 1994. In 1995, the building was firebombed by Jerry Brown, causing $1,500 in damage (about $2,300 in 2013 dollars). Brown was later arrested at Southern Kitchen in Kanawha City.
Capitol Lounge's alcohol licenses were revoked by the state in 1996, and state officials refused to issue new licenses, citing the problems caused by the establishment.
More recently, Rick & Charlotte's Grill was a tenant in the 2000s, and a Subway occupied part of the building until 2009, when it moved to the 1400 block of Washington Street East.
If CURA succeeds in obtaining the building, renovations can proceed.
Cavender said his organization would assist CURA with renovations to the building.
"We'll help with the exterior and interior," he said, referring to design work. "That'll be our role with that."
East End Main Street has assisted other building owners in the neighborhood with design work, including Bluegrass Kitchen and Little India across Washington Street from the building.
In the case of both buildings, Cavender said he would like to see positive changes take place, not only for the neighborhood, but also for establishments in the immediate vicinity.
"It's unfair for these business owners who have worked so hard," he said.
Contact writer Matt Murphy at Matt.Murphy@dailymail.com or 304-348-4817.