In October 2006, developer Vince Graham and a few of his friends fed a King Street parking meter, set up a table and chairs, and had themselves a pizza. Graham wanted more outdoor dining downtown. What he got was a ticket for "obstructing public ways." The city dropped the charges two months later.
On May 16, dining is expected to get back out into the street when developer Jamie Price leads a team of volunteers in shutting down not only a parking space, but all of King between Calhoun and Queen streets. The event is called Do the Charleston.
Graham's primary gripe about finding outdoor dining downtown has found some success. In an attempt to shepherd smokers off the streets, bars and restaurants are winning approval for patio space. Where ample sidewalk space is available, restaurants are allowed to offer a few tables. And the sidewalks have been upgraded from Broad Street heading to the northern tip of Upper King Street. But many restaurants, particularly on King, don't have the room. Hell, pedestrians walking on the sidewalk are often within a hair's breadth of having an elbow struck by a passing driver's side mirror.
Price, a member of the city's Bike Committee, says he came up with the idea by looking at Charleston's architectural siblings in other countries.
"We have this European type of city, but we don't have events where the streets are closed to traffic," Price says. "We want people to come into town and enjoy this fantastic city of ours. This is the way to do it."
Walking down King Street, Price stops short at an intersection as the light changes. A couple of college students take their chances and brush by as the cars start to roll slowly through the intersection.
"You'll be able to cross the street without dodging traffic," Price says, pointing to the crowded sidewalk and the passing cars. "You have a lot of people who don't want to bring their children downtown."
The event will include street performers and a stage at the corner of King and Market streets. Local retailers, who typically close on Sundays, will be open, and restaurants are encouraged to put a few tables out in the unused parking spaces (legally this time). Organization booths will be set up, with food vendors south of Market Street where the dining choices are slim.
Starting late last year, Price began approaching others who'd talked about blocking off the street, including co-chairs Kristin Walker and Celeste Fortier.
But support from some officials and merchants was tough to find at first. "It hasn't been done before, but I'm very persistent," Price says. He notes he found support from new city Councilman Mike Seekings. And business owners are recognizing the potential to drum up business.
The event is also a coming out party for the newly renovated Lower King Street. The city recently completed work upgrading sidewalks and burying power lines.
"This lets people see it's a very vibrant area," Price says.
Some wheels will be encouraged on Sunday. Three monitored bike corrals will be installed along King Street and maps will be available with bike- and pedestrian-friendly routes through the peninsula. The event website, dothecharleston.com, also includes a list of bike routes on and around the peninsula.
"They're encouraged to keep walking up King Street or to bike off and see the rest of the peninsula," Price says.
Tourists will certainly be able to take advantage of the event, but Price says this is about Charleston residents getting better use of the downtown shopping district.
"We have great events, but we need community events," he says. "We have tourists and that's terrific, but when you open it up like this, everyone can be here."
The event will run from noon to 5 p.m. King Street will be blocked off from Calhoun and Queen from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more info, visit dothecharleston.com