In 1900, 418 King St. was home to at least four people, according to volume six of the Old Codger's Charleston Address Book. The building also housed a lunch room run by D.W. Bradley, who is listed with a (c) next to his name, presumably denoting his race. The property would go on to house Liberty Furniture Co. from 1930 to 1980 before sitting vacant until 1996. Now, it's the home of PrimeSouth Group, a real estate development firm that bought the building in 1989 and purports to have its hands in a majority of transactions on upper King Street.
This 119-year history, seen through the lens of one property, tells the story of a corridor that today is more closely associated with college clubbers and well-to-do diners than urban decay and minority-owned businesses. It's a corridor that, in the next generation, may take on another entirely new identity, depending on who is willing to pay.
The Broad Path
As a city grows, its dwellers become obsessed with naming. We create cutesy monikers for a cluster of streets, restaurants, and boutiques, seeking a through line or making one up as we go. King Street has been the Broad Path since 1679. More modern iterations find Charleston boroughs taking on their own personalities — every year the City Paper's student guide deems Harleston "beautiful and family-friendly." Cannonborough/Elliotborough is "hip" with stellar food offerings. North Central is eternally "growing" and "fun."
Upper King, though, remains a special case. It is not, and never has been, easily definable.
Commercial activity on upper King Street began in the 19th century, powered by the inauguration of the Best Friend of Charleston locomotive on Christmas Day in 1830. Before that, most business took place on narrow streets like Elliott and Tradd, an area of town built around the ports that connected America to Europe.
But as westward expansion took hold, the city started to face inward. Jewish merchants began operating on the stretch in the late 1800s. King Street reached its heyday by the 1950s, according to College of Charleston historian and librarian Harlan Greene.
"It was an active kind of neighborhood," he says. "Many people living above the stores. Lots of different ethnic groups there."
Two decades later, King Street's heyday had fizzled out.
"For years, Charlestonians and visitors have looked down King Street, once the city's heart, and gasped, or sighed, or walked, tut-tutting away," Greene wrote for Charleston magazine in the mid-1970s. "It needs just about everything if it is not to become something that might be called, 'the deserted village.'"
Almost 30 years ago, the revitalization of King Street was named a "priority item" by John Deehan, Charleston's director of planning at the time.
Lower King, between Broad and Calhoun streets, quickly assumed the role of a shopping district, helped along by the 1986 opening of the Charleston Place Hotel. The luxury development touched off a "revival" for King Street as a whole, according to the American Planning Association.
Upper King, between Calhoun and Spring streets, was unable to assume an immediate identity.
In a 1991 Post and Courier article, writer Dorothy Givens quotes Deehan, "We need a restaurant on Upper King Street and this building [545 King] would be a perfect place for it." In 2005, that address became hookah lounge Torch, a velvet-clad space that would close in 2014. By the end of 2017, Vintage Lounge revamped the space into a chic wine bar that Architectural Digest would call "the most beautiful" in the state.
"At first glance, upper King Street in peninsular Charleston may not look like much," Tony Bartleme wrote for the P&C in 1991, with Deehan noting a "major rehabilitation" project planned for a building at 492 King St. Abandoned since Hurricane Hugo two years earlier, the 1800s building would not be reborn until 2015 when Relish Restaurant Group opened 492. The space now sits empty after closing in 2018, windows uncovered, tables still inside, a microcosm of Greene's "deserted village."
In three decades, the cachet of landing on upper King has only increased. How does one become a successful restaurant in this corridor? If it takes just one minute to walk from 492 to Vintage Lounge, why is one empty and one being praised in a glossy magazine?
Upper King restaurateurs will tell you that in the last five years, the cost of staying on the path has gone up. Way up. Some are in it for the long-haul, others aren't so sure about the viability of paying to stay, and some are willing to readjust, renovate, even rebrand to keep their coveted spot.
Making it work
Walking north from Calhoun, you'll quickly find ice cream, barbecue, Mexican, modern American, Italian, bars devoted to wine, bars devoted to bourbon, sushi, and pizza slices as big as your head. You can get a steak and martini or a shot and a beer. There are rooftops and DJs, acoustic guitars and outdoor patios. Parking is expensive, just like the price per square foot. Flanked by Hotel Bennett to the south and Hyatt Place to the north, upper King restaurants must cater to tourists more than ever, while still drawing in the all-important local crowd.
Restaurateur Brooks Reitz, who co-owns and operates three upper, upper King spots — Melfi's, Leon's, and Little Jack's — was brought in last year to help revamp Monza, an OG upper King wood-fired pizza restaurant. Opened in 2008 by Reitz's business partner Tim Mink and restaurateur Karalee Fallert, Monza shared back of house operations with sister restaurant Closed for Business. This past fall, Reitz said that "from a purely business perspective, Monza is a better business, there's more demand." So Closed for Business was closed for good, and Monza underwent an extensive reno, with walls knocked down to connect the two properties.
- Ruta Smith
- Restaurateur Brooks Reitz has opened a handful of popular dining spots on King Street in recent years
"Middle King where Monza is, there are a lot more people I don't recognize, people who look like tourists. Meaning they're looking around, maybe confused about where to go," says Reitz. "They don't have any sense of whether Monza is a good restaurant or bad restaurant so they're sort of making their mind up about how it looks, what the menu reads."
Unlike those patronizing Reitz' other establishments, Monza's clientele is often on foot, Googling, perhaps, "Best King Street Restaurants" as they walk. Yelp reigns supreme in the world of search engine optimization, which means wayward visitors are putting stock in the noise of their peers.
"You've got to know your customers and who is paying the bills and have an honest conversation about what they're looking for," says Reitz. That means a 'middle King' address like Monza needs to have the right look — colorful, welcoming, casual, plenty of seating — and the right price point. It means being open six days a week for lunch and dinner and serving beer, wine, and cocktails.
One-tenth of a mile up the street, Uncork Wine Bar owner Ken Schneider, an economist by day, explains the clientele he's trying to attract at 476 King St.
"I'm not just catering to Charleston, I'm catering to people who are coming here. I could build a restaurant anywhere but I can't recreate history, and that's kind of what we have here," says Schneider. Formerly occupied by Sweet 185 (a spa that has since moved to President Street), the building has 19th century brick walls and original patinated floors.
Schneider says that paying for that kind of history at this address is not cheap; he notes that while the price per square foot at the location used to be in the $15 range, over the past few years it's shot up closer to $40 per square foot. "What we're paying for a square foot, yes, it's expensive," says Schneider. "I understand people, even restaurants who have been in the business 'X' amount of time, rent is tripling or quadrupling. Economically it has to make sense."
If a building is worth a million dollars in 2012, and 3.5 million in 2018, "you can't charge $15 a square foot," says Schneider. "You're losing money." A longtime Charleston resident, Schneider says it's hard, from a local's perspective, to justify spending $14 on a cocktail. But from a business perspective, "It's a 4x markup on a bottle of wine, rents went up, and people are paying for it. This is the town everyone wants to come visit. Spending $14 for a cocktail is cheap to them."
And as prices rise across the board, for both owners and customers, there seems to be no shortage of people willing to shell out the dough.
A 2013 Post and Courier article examining the "new face of Upper King," cites the city's revenue growth from food and bev sales between 2010 and 2012: "Charleston receives an accommodations tax of 2 cents from every dollar of food and beverage sales. That revenue grew from 9.8 million in 2010 to nearly 11.5 in 2012 for a 17 percent gain."
The city's 2018 revenue from tourism taxes was $16.9 million, up 47 percent from 2012.
Schneider says when he started leasing the Uncork space in late 2017 it was "an owner's market." But now, in Schneider's opinion, "We're a little bit above equilibrium, meaning there are more spaces than people. And there's all this excess — prices have peaked."
In the past, empty spaces would be scooped up in no time. Today, there are at least a dozen empty storefronts between Calhoun and Spring, including the beautiful 492.
"If property is vacant and available, there's typically a reason for that. There's a development plan that is being progressed," says Chris Price, president of PrimeSouth Group. Price cites the former PURE Theatre space as an example. "I don't wanna sign a long-term lease because we're working on a development plan there," he says.
The upper King stretch is what people in Price's line of work call a preservation-of-capital market. In other words, it's a safe place to put your money and watch it grow. That fits well with the conservative ethos of Charleston, along with PrimeSouth's business model, which centers on owning buildings and leasing them to businesses.
The firm sees a not-so-distant future where every door on King Street leads to something new.
Just 28 years ago, the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau opened its office at 423 King St., something that Price considers a pivotal moment in upper King history. Three years later, the street converted to two-way traffic. Between 2005 and 2007, sidewalks were resurfaced with granite and bluestone, and unsightly power lines went underground.
All of this was by design, says Charleston city planner Jacob Lindsey.
- Ruta Smith
- Charleston city planner Jacob Lindsey says it’s not the role of government to micromanage development
"The city has worked for many years to fully restore the entire length of King Street to make it one of the best main streets in the nation," Lindsey says, noting the city's input on everything from design, through the Board of Architectural Review, to public safety on nights and weekends.
In the City Paper's 2000 Best of Charleston issue, Upper King was named "Best up and coming neighborhood:" "It's been up and coming for the last few years, and it's still marching north ... just recently The Silver Dollar finished renovating their building which had stood vacant for 25 years. The folks at American Theater are putting the finishing touches on their two 'new' buildings that recreate an old world charm."
Steve Sher, who owns and tends bar at Silver Dollar, says he "won't go into numbers," but he did score that 478 King St. address "for less than a million" in 2004. "It's probably tripled or quadrupled since then."
Sher started leasing the space in 1999, and spent a year renovating the building that had been vacant for a quarter century. "There was a lot of sweat equity [that went into it], other guys owned the building, I was the one there during the week." A 20-something with a dollar and a dream, Sher and his brother would buy the building together after four years of renting.
"I'm fully aware I had an advantage," says Sher. "I opened Dec. 30 of '99 when certain areas of Charleston had to close bars at 2 a.m., but because I opened before New Year's, the day after I opened all these bars had to close [early] but I didn't. We were open for lunch and dinner every night, I wasn't going to say no to business."
Not to say the crowds were knocking down his door from the get, of course. "When I opened, we were certainly the end of the line — it's just a matter of what I could afford."
Less than 400 feet away, at 510 King St., local developer Mike Shuler is in the process of renovating the landmark Morris Sokol building — a shuttered furniture store that he bought for $22.5 million in 2016 — into a retail-condo-hotel behemoth.
"It's not a gentrification story or anything like that, because there's not a lot up here," he says of his work on upper King during an interview in Starbucks at 502 King St. "This building we're sitting in wasn't in very good shape. None of them were. It was a fringe place that had a lot of history."
Shuler saw an opening after Sher opened Silver Dollar between Mary and Ann streets in '99.
"A lot of the older guys I worked with at the firm for a while outside of school, they thought I was crazy thinking that upper King Street was gonna be the next hot thing," he says. "They just didn't see it."
Celeste Patrick, co-owner and founder of Patrick Properties, remembers all too well what upper King used to look like, and what people thought when she and husband Charles purchased 442 King St., which was Fish for 17 years and is now Parcel 32 and The Parlour, "it was only three walls, there was no front and no top," laughs Celeste.
- Ruta Smith
- Celeste Patrick of Patrick Properties co-owns a stretch of landmark buildings on King Street
"People thought we were crazy, they're like, 'Are you kidding?' This part of King was uninhabitable — at first it was just friends and family then it became more local, then it did become more tourists, we don't get a lot of people with ... shorts and T-shirts, though. It's evolved into more of a foodie tourist thing."
Owning and operating a restaurant was not the Patricks' goal. In fact, Celeste says it was the American Theater at 446 King St. that was always the draw.
"My dad was a contractor and we had renovated several houses ourselves. I asked an architect friend 'If you want to make an impact in the area, would you start by renovating houses or businesses?' " says Celeste. His answer? "He said, 'You need to pick an anchor, find an anchor you want to renovate and things will grow around you.' We renovated that anchor and things just kind of spread around us."
Tucked into an alcove on upper King, PrimeSouth pulls the strings on some of the priciest and most coveted developments on the booming stretch. From a sunlit conference room, Chris Price refers to a sheet listing upcoming developments from Sheppard Street, on the far end of upper King, all the way to Burns Lane just south of Calhoun Street.
Intimidatingly precise arrows connect glossy renderings of planned exteriors to their prospective spots on the map.
"I bet you there's $800 [million] to $1 billion worth of development that has transpired or is getting ready to transpire," says Price.
"In the next five to 10 years here, there's gonna be another dramatic jump," adds Patrick, director of leasing and sales and Chris's brother.
"King Street is a street that's flanked by residential on the east side and west side that's transitioning rapidly," Patrick says, a euphemism for the displacement of longtime residents that has turned the city's racial demographics upside down since the 1980s.
"Upper King Street is one of the best examples of a true mixed-use community. People can live here, work here, and play here," Chris says.
- Ruta Smith
- PrimeSouth Group’s Chris (right) and Patrick Price say up to $1 billion in development is in motion on King Street
The future of upper King, according to PrimeSouth, lies in retail. It's gotten easier to convince clothing stores to cross Calhoun Street ever since stores like Orvis and Free People have decided on the stretch in the past year. Most recently, PrimeSouth convinced Luna, a women's boutique on lower King, to move a few blocks up. An opening is scheduled in the next month.
As the Price brothers prepare a retail-laden future for upper King, they'd do well to emulate their mid-century Broad Path predecessors.
Members of popular Facebook group, Charleston History before 1945, chime in with fond memories of the old, store-focused upper King.
"That area was populated mostly by clothing stores, shoe stores, furniture stores, two theaters, a shoe repair shop, a jewelry, a drapery and fabric store plus Condon's Department Store [427 King St.]," writes one user. "The area was very active, prosperous, and a great place to shop. They had everything you wanted."
Sally Warshaw Weisman shares that "my maternal grandfather Henry Koslow opened and operated Henry's Cut Rate Drug Store at 543 King St. from 1930 to about 1975." Today, you can buy a bag of Cheetos and a Diet Coke at that address.
Due to state law, the city can't artificially control rents, leaving upper King completely in the hands of market forces.
"The job of a good government is to make sure places are safe and to make sure the public realm is well-cared for," says Lindsey, the city planner. "We're not in the business of selecting who goes or doesn't go into a retail space."
Indigo Road Restaurant Group managing partner Steve Palmer, named a 2019 James Beard semi-finalist for Outstanding Restaurateur, planted the Indigo Road flag on Upper King with O-Ku in 2010, Macintosh and Cocktail Club in 2011, and Indaco in 2013.
Palmer says they rent all four buildings, and while he wouldn't get too specific, he did admit that one of the rents is $18,000 a month. "We were in the mid-30s per square foot and I know we're well over $50 a foot now ... I'm 30+ years in, the last five years it has changed so dynamically."
Indigo Road successfully operates 16 concepts (and counting) across Charleston, Atlanta, Nashville, and Charlotte. The group's executive chef and partner Jeremiah Bacon is a three-time JBF semifinalist for Best Chef Southeast. But $18k a month is still a hefty sum. When asked if he would venture to open another King Street spot now or in the near future, Palmer is quick to say, "No, I would not."
Henry Eang, who co-owns and operates seven Basil Thai Restaurant locations across North and South Carolina, also rents his 460 King St. building. The option to renew his 10-year lease is coming up in under two years. Eang says, "After what's going on, it's a difficult decision to make. I haven't made up my mind if I'm going to stick around or leave. It's crazy what the rates are going for these days."
Eang and his brother opened the flagship Basil in 2002, 12 years before King would be recognized by the American Planning Association as one of America's "10 Great Streets." Since then, "there are so many options compared to when we started, people have a lot more options to go other places," says Eang.
With or without Google, tourist or local, there's an infinite sea of restaurants for the hungry diner to choose from in 2019.
North Central, the northern frontier of King Street development, is home to the Mink-Reitz empire, Graft wine bar, and now, French bistro Maison. Park Circle has Beard semifinalists Stems & Skins, Corrie and Shuai Wang's Jackrabbit Filly on the horizon, and a neighborhood brewery that is packed with locals most every night. Johns Island has stepped up their game with The Royal Tern, a beautiful new seafood spot; Folly has its very own 6,500 square foot tiki bar; and James Island will soon welcome acclaimed pitmaster Pat Martin. Spring Street is springing with not one but two Spanish tapas spots, Wild Common, Pink Cactus, and Josephine Wine Bar.
"I would love to stay where I am, but there's a revenue decrease, a price increase on everything else," says Eang. "It's hard for me to stay put having rent double and maintain a good, profitable business ... we try to keep everything consistent, we just need a bit more foot traffic."
Both Shuler and the Price brothers highlight the importance of hotels in driving foot traffic and providing a built-in clientele for cuisine, nightlife, and retail. But hotel growth is exactly what the city is trying to reel in. Mayor John Tecklenburg ran on the promise of a hotel moratorium in 2015. In a campaign email this month, he announced plans for a new proposal "which will aim to protect the city's diversity of uses."
"We do believe that hotels have a specific distorting effect on the value of property, because they're by far the most valuable land use," says Lindsey. "We are attempting to restrain the growth of hotels, which we believe will help to moderate the cost of properties in the city center."
That could be a problem for the PrimeSouth brothers, who have a mixed-use hotel project in the works on upper King.
Whether upper King goes the way of retail, restaurants, or a healthy mix of both, time will tell.
"That portion of upper King is critically important to the heart of our city," Lindsey says. "Hopefully we'll see it fully restored and fully built within the next few years."
Reitz, Palmer, Eang, Patrick, Sher, and Schneider look to the future, hoping "fully built" doesn't mean "driven out."
"Operators, the good ones that are busy, understand the alchemy — it has to be food, it has to be space, it has to be price point, the energy, the service style," says Reitz. "You can't just open on King Street because you're on King and think because there are thousands of people, 'Oh we'll be fine.' It definitely requires more savvy than that."