Charleston’s King Street has long served as a distinguished business corridor through the peninsula, as well as a junction between the various historic boroughs adjacent to it. Its plethora of retail shops and fine dining make King Street a thoroughfare for pedestrians for more than a century, garnering recognition as one of America’s best shopping streets.
So in 2010 an experiment was born: on the second Sunday of each month, a portion of King Street is closed off to vehicles to create a sort of pedestrian mall.
The middle and lower sections of King Street – the half-mile between Calhoun Street and Broad Street – is defined by its neat rows of historic buildings that house a sweeping variety of shops.
Fashion boutiques Copper Penny and Hampden, family-owned men’s clothiers Berlin’s and M. Dumas & Sons, to national brands Pottery Barn, Brooks Brothers, and Apple Store pepper the bluestone sidewalks.
Fine restaurants abound – white-cloth Italian dining at Fulton Five, the city’s oldest wine bar Bin 152, and in one of my favorite spots in all of Charleston, the sophisticated Lebanese cuisine at Leyla.
While Sundays in Charleston tend to be more of a boozy brunch sort of affair, shop owners have generally reported a significant uptick in sales during Second Sunday events. Locals and visitors are treated to an afternoon of open-air shopping and dining, surrounded by sights of festive events and the sounds of acoustic street performers, as if we are sampling the whole of Charleston’s culture in one geographic spot.
So I pose the question: would it be feasible and beneficial to extend the pedestrian-first concept of Second Sunday to every day?
A Brief History of King Street
Initially a high ground, back road entrance into Charleston, King Street had no commercial activity until the new-fangled railroad was introduced into the peninsula.
Merchants began to relocate from the wharves and dock-facing storefronts of East Bay Street toward the middle of the peninsula on King and Meeting Streets. This shift was aided further by the advent of street cars, and by the middle of the 19th century King Street had become the most robust retail district in the American South.
King Street remained pedestrian-friendly into the twentieth century, with streetside parking and trolley service complementing the wide sidewalks. Revitalization efforts in the last few decades have focused on unifying the architecture of building façades, tasteful streetscaping, as well as creating programming that employs King Street as a “main street” corridor for parades and other citywide events.
By the 1980s, a portion of middle King Street – now paved in bricks – was limited to pedestrians during the holiday season.
I recall the giant Christmas tree towering above the storefronts (the circular pattern of brickwork that anchored the tree is still prominent on the street) along with an assortment of holiday themed setups.
This long term conversion of King Street into a pedestrian mall was actually not so popular with the merchants, who pressured the City to allow limited vehicular access (around the tree!), and ultimately ended the event altogether.
Efforts at traffic calming in Charleston have altered a number of streets, including a restoration of the one-way portion of upper King Street back to two-way traffic. The middle and lower portions of King Street remain dual-lane and one-way, perhaps offering some breathing room to a redesign.
What Works (and Doesn't) on Second Sunday
Limiting all vehicular access on a thoroughfare can be tricky. The businesses and residences on King Street still require services that are provided by motor vehicles – deliveries, trash and recycle pickup, police and fire access. The one day of the week that is least impactful to these services seems to be Sunday.
Those who live in residences above the shops of King Street are generally not affected by limiting street access – those that own vehicles typically park them off King, with access to other streets.
On the other hand, the popularity of Second Sunday can prove to be a hassle for residents, as the normal day-to-day rhythm is supplanted by a circus of activity.
Business owners generally report higher-than-average sales figures on Second Sunday, and I can personally attest that our downtown office receives an uptick in guests as well. However it does appear that a cost-benefit determination must be figured, because you know what they say about too much of a good thing.
Finding Balance on King Street
Perhaps the popularity of Second Sunday on King Street has illuminated a fundamental need inherent to any city: for the street to be a place in itself, not just a means to move vehicular traffic.
A proper street serves the livelihoods of those who rely on it, and should then be designed with their needs in mind.
For this thought experiment on a long-term plan, let’s consider the middle portion of King Street – between Calhoun and Broad Streets – the most historic stretch of the business district, and also the most narrow (the same portion that is closed to vehicles on Second Sunday):
King Street in Charleston bears a surprising amount of vehicular traffic assigned to it: two very narrow lanes in a single direction (south), with parallel parking along one side, often slammed with traffic of all kinds. Even smaller vehicles are scant inches from the next vehicle, the bicycles, pedestrians on the sidewalk, and parked cars opening doors, all happening in the same frantic space.
It just feels dangerous for everyone involved, and that can be addressed by allocating some traffic lanes to other modes.
Reduce this span of King Street to one lane, and widen it. Planners would need to accommodate some commuters that would need to access side streets.
While residents of King Street would be mostly unaffected (those who have vehicles generally park them off on side streets, alleyways, garages, etc.) – business owners are of course disproportionately affected.
Let’s keep most of the existing parallel parking, offsetting lost spaces with expanded shuttle stops, more bicycle corrals, and perhaps additional garage parking if possible.
King Street is an ideal thoroughfare for bicycle traffic, frequently used by residents, students, delivery services, tourists, you name it.
A bicycle ride is easily the best way to get around the Historic District for those who are able.
However bicycling on King could be safer than it is. Crammed into a narrow high volume street, surrounded with vehicles moving in and out of two thin lanes, bicyclists are mostly forced into the “door zone” of parallel parked vehicles.
Add a dedicated bicycle lane to King Street, buffered from the door zone.
Delivery, Service, and Public Transportation
Friends, these vehicles take up both lanes anyway, effectively creating a one-lane street for vehicles behind them – if you need evidence, plan to bounce down King Street tomorrow morning behind the 10:15am recycle truck.
Delivery vehicles do utilize certain spots designated for unloading, as do the city bus shuttles.
Limit service vehicles to early morning when possible, and rethink the placement of designated zones within the parking side for delivery trucks and trash/recycle pickup. Obviously accommodate areas for fire trucks to operate as needed.
in the King Street historic business district
A King Street for Pedestrians First
I am of the opinion that designating how a particular street is utilized should not be for the sole purpose of enhancing a retail environment.
This concept of a pedestrian shopping mall has had limited success in the past few decades, often because the intent was simply to draw suburban shoppers from the mall. That’s a flawed concept that fails more often than not.
That being said, there is a clear benefit to everyone – nearby residents, shop employees, visitors and guests, as well as shoppers and diners – to enjoy a space that is designed for how they live and work.
So I put forth the idea that we hybridize Second Sunday, setting aside portions of the street to create permanent pedestrian plazas – for gathering, outside dining, a place for local musicians to take a small stage. Perhaps let’s begin with the bricked portion of middle King, shown on the map as a colored block between Wentworth and Market Streets.
Walkability, bikeability, and pedestrian safety are all enhanced. Vehicle traffic is partially impeded by the traffic calming measures mentioned above which are ultimately safer (and less stressful) for drivers.
For inspiration on this concept of reclaiming streets, look just one mile away to the Greenway Project in the Medical District, where a portion of Doughty Street has been reclaimed to create a landscaped plaza with trees and sitting areas, fully lit for nighttime enjoyment.
So, let’s continue the tradition of Second Sunday, essentially extending that hypothetical pedestrian plaza between Wentworth and Market Streets to the current Second Sunday path between Calhoun to Broad Streets.
I think there is potential for a productive dialogue with all interested parties as to how often – once a month is nice, once a week would be great – though a permanent pedestrian plaza would require a bit more thought to smooth out the particulars.