West Ashley now home to yet another peninsular challenge

by Bill Davis | News Editor

Another pesky peninsula dweller has found a home in West Ashley: add knockdowns to the list of traffic, gentrification, vibrancy, density and others that have jumped the Ashley River.

Pressure for land and rising property costs have combined to spur more infill development in West Ashely. Ashleyville, half of the neighborhood that formed the state’s first African-American township ages ago, is seeing it on its river side of St. Andrews Boulevard.

So are other neighborhoods, like Ashley Forest, which lies behind the Avondale Point Business District and between St. Andrews Boulevard and Savannah Highway.

And for better or worse, Nate Hertel stands at the balancing point. An Iowa transplant who’s spent time in Georgia, Hertel has been buying up and rehabbing houses throughout the area for several years.

And that was his plan when he purchased a former church at the corner of Live Oak Avenue and Magnolia Road. His intentions were to turn that church into a home for him, his wife, and their offspring.

But that was before the engineers weighed in, and that’s when things got interesting and have since raised a few eyebrows.

Hertel says he was told by several engineering firms that they had serious concerns whether the building could be brought up to modern code and seismic requirements. So, the church, like his plans, had to be scrapped.

Hertel decided to tear down the building the hard way, by taking it apart board-by-board, nail-by-nail, so that its pieces could be saved and repurposed instead of taking up space in a landfill.

He and his parents went out with hammers, shovels, and crowbars and dismantled the building in the heat of the summer months. Those months dragged on, as they built shelves for storing the salvaged wood onsite, and worked on other projects in the area.

It was during the dismantling that Hertel became convinced that the church had already been repurposed. He came to believe that it was actually one of the barracks of the former World War II prisoner of war camps that used to reside West of the Ashley.

Like many other potentially historic sites on this side of the river, it had not been given the same research, attention, and protection that many aging buildings have been afforded on the peninsula.

Hertel had also purchased what appeared to the passing eye to be a single lot, but had in fact bought three lots, as can be seen platted on the Ashley Forest’s Facebook neighborhood page cover photo.

Hertel was faced with a tough situation. In order to make the purchase a worthwhile investment, he would have to build houses on more than one of the lots. He decided to put a home on all three.

And then he decided to go public with his plans on that same Facebook page. He’d worried that neighbors might get upset. He apologized for the length of time the project had already taken in a lengthy post he put up after going to a January county zoning meeting.

He assured everyone that he planned to build valuable, efficient, and attractive homes that would add to everyone’s property values. He even posted images of the first home he proposed to build.

But when anyone gives the public the chance to chime in, they will. And they did.

Concerned neighbors began to post questions and concerns about the project. One even went to that same zoning meeting to share her concerns.

The biggest concerns voiced by neighbors was that he was going to “subdivide” the property, and the size of the homes compared to the lots and how they would fit in with the rest of the neighborhood. Others worry that this is Hertel’s first “new construction” project.

After attending the meeting, a local attorney who lives a stone’s throw from Hertel’s property, said “what is best for [Hertel] is best for everybody; as far as the neighborhood is concerned I hope we all support and get behind [the project], because if he fails nobody wins.”

Ashley Forest Neighborhood Association president David Nauheim echoes much of her position.

“I think under the circumstances, this is the best outcome we could hope for,” says Nauheim, also a lawyer. “That existing building … there wasn’t anything anyone could do to it.”

Nauheim welcomes the idea of having “three, high-quality homes with architecture consistent with the neighborhood with varying building materials.”

“He’s not going to turn it into a little park for us because that’s not economically viable,” says Nauheim.“The only thing possibly better would be two houses” on those three lots.

While the neighboring attorney  did not want to be mentioned in this article, Hertel is quick to include her perspective in his discussions, as he wants everyone effected to benefit from his efforts.

Hertel confirms that his lots won’t be the exact same size as the rest in the neighborhood, as platted they will run from 99-percent to 70-percent of the regular size.

It may be hard to see how his project could hurt Ashley Forest, as its property values have soared as one of the hottest neighborhoods in the region, according to several real estate agents.

Despite having multifamily, lower-income apartment buildings in its midst, Ashley Forest is currently home to a three-bedroom, two-bath bungalow that is up for sale at $450,000, or nearly $300 a square foot.

By contrast, the bigger cottage next to that bungalow sold for $126,000 two decades ago. Another home around the corner recently sold for a cool half-million dollars.

Additionally, a few doors down from Hertel’s property, another homeowner had already bought an empty lot and erected a gorgeous two-story home that would look as at-home in certain parts of Daniel Island as it does next to brick bungalows in Ashley Forest.

Hertel says he’s gunning for a $500,000 price point on his new construction.

Property values may not go down, but something has been lost in the project, according to Charlie Smith, a West Ashley realtor with a long history of rehabbing existing structures. He is also a former member of the county planning commission, and is an ardent historical preservationist.

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