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Woolworth -- time for a new beginning?

A developer has proposed razing the former Woolworth building in downtown Rock Hill and replacing it with a multi-story building to include lower floor retail space and apartments. The store, which is seen at top during its heyday in the 1960s, is now seen by many as an eyesore downtown.
A developer has proposed razing the former Woolworth building in downtown Rock Hill and replacing it with a multi-story building to include lower floor retail space and apartments. The store, which is seen at top during its heyday in the 1960s, is now seen by many as an eyesore downtown.

After multiple failed attempts to redevelop the old Woolworth building in downtown Rock Hill, a proposal has been made to tear down the empty building and start over.

Bryan Barwick of Charlotte-based Barwick and Associates has proposed to the Rock Hill Economic Development Corp. razing the so-called eyesore on Main Street and replacing it with a multi-story building to include lower floor retail space and apartments above. The new building would be narrower, with an alley leading to the large parking lot between Main and White streets. If the plan comes to fruition, it would be a major success where other plans have failed.

So far, the idea has been welcomed by members of the Board of Historic Review, which recently reviewed the proposal. It will have to OK any building plans if Barwick moves ahead. But the idea also raises the question of where the line should be drawn between saving historical treasures and removing obsolete structures.

Addie Rutledge, chairwoman of the historic board, called the plan "imaginative and creative." She remembers shopping in Woolworth, now owned by the RHEDC, when it and neighboring McCrorey's were two of the more popular shops downtown. But unlike the McCrorey's building, which has been renovated to house the Old Town Bistro and the Piedmont Association of Realtors offices, Woolworth has remained vacant and in disrepair.

Several plans have been discussed for the 16,800-square-foot building since it closed in 1989. City officials originally suggested a market with shops and a food court, then Thomasson Commercial Real Estate hoped to turn the space into offices and a major restaurant. When neither worked out, two more developers -- including Barwick several years ago -- considered the property, but neither moved forward.

That history, and that the building has been criticized for being too big, not up to code and without adequate parking, is what's motivating downtown leaders to lend ears to the new idea.

"It's too bad the building can't be used," Rutledge said. "But I would rather see the downtown flourish than keep an empty building. I want to see something with vitality."

Is it worth saving?

Martin Goode, a member of the Board of Historic Review and a downtown resident, said while Rock Hill has lost some buildings it should have saved, such as the old Freedom House that was replaced with a parking lot at the intersection of Black and Elizabeth Streets, the Woolworth building won't be one of them.

"It's not an especially beautiful or historic building. It's just a big box. What they would build in its place would be much better," he said, noting how appealing it would be to have a major retailer or market and residents in the space.

"Preserving something just because it's old isn't reason enough," he said, adding historical or architectural significance should be the main considerations. "If it's old and beautiful, then it's worth saving."

Downtown lunch counters, including Woolworth's, once served as the backdrop for sit-in protests in the 1960s. But its neighbor McCrorey's became the icon of the civil rights era in Rock Hill because of the Friendship Nine, a group of nine black Friendship College students who were arrested during a sit-in, drawing national media attention to the city. Since then, the sit-ins at Woolworth's and other downtown lunch counters have become footnotes.

'Still in conceptual stage'

Barwick said last week he's "still in the conceptual stage" and isn't yet ready to fully commit to the project. The Economic Development Corp. extended an option on the property this month to give Barwick more time to work on details.

Joe Marett, a real estate appraiser and historic review board member, said there are hoops to jump through. Barwick will have to meet the board's criteria for demolition before moving ahead, he said.

"We'll have some pretty strict rules," he said. "That's one of the things we've been sticklers about in the past, not demolishing old buildings."

But plan supporters point to Barwick's track record in Rock Hill. To much fanfare, he teamed with Gary Williams, co-owner of the Williams & Fudge college loan agency, to restore The Cotton Factory on White Street and before that renovated the Citizens Bank building on Main Street. Each time, he preserved the building's character by highlighting unique architecture and features. Supporters hope he can build a new building at the Woolworth site and save some of the nuances of the old dime store in the process.

"I don't see any reason why someone would oppose it," Goode said. "I'm glad we have people with the vision and deep pockets to make it happen."

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