Columbia developer Ben Arnold has purchased the iconic Moe Levy’s on Columbia’s Assembly Street and the surrounding buildings with an eye toward a redevelopment that could connect the Main Street and Vista retailing areas.
Moe Levy’s — a clothing retailer open on Assembly at Lady streets since 1920 — will close in March after selling off the last of its skiwear, ushering in a new era for a block that is critical to downtown redevelopment efforts.
“That corner is a very important corner,” said Matt Kennell, president and chief executive of the City Center Partnership, which helps guide development in the downtown area.
Redeveloping the Assembly Street block will help connect Main Street and the Vista — a goal for years for city leaders working to revitalize downtown retailing.
While nearby Gervais Street is the main corridor connecting the two areas, it also is a major heavily trafficked thoroughfare, Kennell said. Just a block away, Lady Street is “really a downtown street,” Kennell said, and “may be the new link to the Vista.”
Kennell said Arnold — “a proven developer” — is “the perfect guy to help tie together” the two areas.
Arnold has a $1 million redevelopment plan for the Assembly and Lady streets site that he hopes will land a national retailer or restaurant.
Arnold already owns the adjacent building at Main and Lady. Last year, he opened The Palms, a Miami-style apartment building, in the former Rodeway Inn at that site. That project is fully leased, Arnold said. A new restaurant, a second location of Cantina 76, is to open on the ground floor of The Palms building in less than two weeks.
Arnold also is involved in the development of a student housing project at Huger and Blossom streets in the Vista.
Here is what is planned for the block around Assembly and Lady streets:
• Arnold has been working for several months to refurbish 4,120 square feet of space along Lady Street that formerly housed a big portion of Moe Levy’s merchandise. CrossFit Vista will move into the space in mid-November. The gym, which offers a specialized fitness program, currently operates in 2,625 square feet a couple of spaces down on Lady Street.
• Moe Levy’s and Reliable Pawn, which front on Assembly Street, will stay open for now. Moe Levy’s will close in March, according to owner Harold Rittenberg, 83, who hopes to sell his remaining inventory of skiwear during the upcoming ski season. Reliable Pawn has the option to stay open through April 2016 on Assembly. Meanwhile, Arnold will be searching for a major retailer or restaurant — or both — to fill its 5,000-square-foot space.
• Initially Yours, a luggage and monogramming store, will remain open.
Having Arnold redevelop the block makes the closing of Moe Levy’s more tolerable, Kennell said. “That kind of makes up for what could be a devastating loss.”
Arnold said he approached Rittenberg about buying the buildings owned by his family when he bought the adjacent building, now The Palms.
“I just made it clear when we bought The Palms, ‘If you want to sell this, let me know,’ ” Arnold said. It took two years to put the deal together, he said. “Moe Levy’s is an institution. It’s sad to see it go,” Arnold said. But the deal will benefit the Rittenberg family and the community, Arnold said.
The 93-year-old Moe Levy’s, popular for its Levi’s and Dickies, began selling off its skiwear last year, with Rittenberg pledging to keep the clothing retailer open as long as he could. His mother-in-law, Florence Levy — whose late husband, Moe Levy, opened the store — was a spitfire who went to work every day next door, at Reliable Pawn, until she died at age 106 in March.
“The good thing about Ben is that he is wanting to renovate rather than tear down,” Rittenberg said. “We don’t want this building torn down. . . . Mrs. Levy wouldn’t have liked that.”