Charleston’s King Street was laid out and developed long before the automobile was invented, and a crucial step in its late 20th century revival was figuring out how to accommodate more cars there without compromising its historic feel — a goal accomplished largely by creating new, mostly hidden garages and lots.
In recent years, sections of the street have struggled, and last year’s double whammy of COVID-19 restrictions and the rioting in the wake of George Floyd’s murder accelerated what appeared to be an already downward trend of a growing number of vacant storefronts. That prompted city officials to brainstorm about what immediate steps they could take to help.
One of those steps was to suspend parking requirements set in the city’s zoning code. Most King Street stores lack parking spaces: They were built to cover the entire lot during an era when all customers arrived on foot or by horse. Requiring parking forced developers either to strike costly side deals to buy or lease parking privileges elsewhere in the neighborhood or to seek a zoning variance or exception to waive — or at least reduce — the number of spaces needed. Either way, it adds up to significant extra time and money for any entrepreneur looking to move a restaurant or shop into a space on King.
On Jan. 21, City Council agreed to suspend those requirements temporarily for buildings on King between Broad and Calhoun streets. It later extended the suspension on March 23 and May 11. City officials noticed new interest in a few long-vacant storefronts, such as the former King Street Grille near Liberty Street.
There have been few, if any, complaints that we’re aware of. And city zoning officials believe the change has contributed to more business at three addresses, maybe more. As we have noted when urging the city to experiment with repurposing on-street parking spaces to support nearby businesses, while a downtown can suffer from too little parking, it can suffer even more with too few viable businesses.
So we’re pleased to see City Council considering an ordinance that would permanently do away with those parking requirements on lower King. A public hearing will be held June 16 before the city’s Planning Commission, and we urge council members to approve the proposal when it comes before them on July 20. City Councilman Ross Appel, who has led the charge, said the change checks a lot of boxes: Not only does it help revitalize the street, but it also removes a regulatory burden and supports more walking, biking and transit, which in turn reduces carbon emissions.
“It’s not just the ground-floor retail, it also applies on these underutilized Upper King Street stores as well,” making them more appealing to sell or lease, he said. It’s important to note the change would not apply to any new construction along the street.
The ordinance creates a special parking overlay, which would make it relatively easy to expand in size by adding property identification numbers. We would urge the city to consider expansion where possible. King between Broad and Calhoun was a good place to start because there are fewer residential streets immediately adjacent and because there already is a lot of public and private parking in the area. Future expansions should be careful not to create a problem for those living nearby.
It’s a challenging balancing act: ensuring the vitality of a historic, dense urban street while also making sure that residents — not just visitors and college students — also are able to shop there. And it’s important that the businesses’ employees are able to get to work without excessive headaches and extra cost.
The revitalization of King Street will require more than changing the parking requirements. There are myriad issues that demand a bold, comprehensive plan, strong leadership and open communication from Mayor John Tecklenburg, City Council members and other city officials.
So while the parking changes and other proposals show some promise, we encourage our leaders to be resolute in their efforts to reinvigorate one of Charleston’s most important economic engines.