Aiming for Excellence
If they created a Mount Rushmore for great mayors of the 20th century, the first likeness chiseled out of stone should be Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr.
Still going strong in the first decade of the 21st century, Riley is serving an unprecedented eighth term at the helm of the South Carolina city that is both a preserved historic jewel and one of the most progressive municipal governments in urban America.
"You cannot let the marketplace drive the development of a city," Riley cautioned. "The first thing has to be a civic test: What is the best thing, livability and community-wise, for this land use? I constantly ask my staff, `Does it meet the 50-year test?' Fifty years from now, are they going to say, `This is really great that they did this?' Or are they going to say, 'Why in the hell did they do this?'"
The Charleston native and graduate of the Citadel and University of South Carolina School of Law said great cities foster balance and diversity.
"Balance is the key in life and in cities. In all of the land use decisions you make, the first question you ask yourself is, `Does this benefit our goal?'" Riley said. "Too much of anything usually is not good. Like too many desserts are not good for your system."
Riley explained that despite the strong need for tourism dollars in Charleston, the city did not give carte blanche to the lodging industry.
"We rezoned land in the city to limit where hotels and motels can go because we wanted lots of land in other parts of the city for people to live and work and go to school," he said.
What Riley didn't say was that such an urban formula might be the reason why Charleston retains its colonial authenticity while other American cities have become so obsessed with day trippers and cruise ship visitors that they have allowed their historic core to become a carnival ride of T-shirt shacks, tacky shops and chain theme restaurants.
All mayors talk the talk, but Riley has been able to achieve his urban goals of:
• "Recapturing our waterfront for the people."
• "Bringing our downtown back to life as vibrant, pedestrian-populated zone."
• "Producing attractive affordable housing. As this city, as all cities become more popular, it will be a city of both large and modest incomes living in it."
Riley has also pursued an aggressive annexation strategy, diversifying the city's tax base and maintaining proper urban scale while increasing Charleston's land mass from less than 17 square miles in 1975 to more than 100 square miles today.
Riley said the fight for excellence is "a good battle to have" when challenging poor urban standards.
"We want to widen a sidewalk or narrow a street, and we hit resistance," he said. "The first answer is, `We've never done that before,' or `There's some rule or regulation against it.' And my answer is, `Well, let's really look at that.' Cities have been so driven by rules that were developed at a time of urban expansion when we really weren't thinking or living urbanistically."
"We're working on a new new urbanist community with parks and all proper things for a new development, but I'm having a battle within my staff over street widths," Riley shared. "Some say the street's not wide enough, and others say it's better to have a street that's more narrow and intimate. I say it's a typical fight to achieve excellence. Maybe it's a little tougher to turn around, but that's what cities do when we aim for excellence. We find a way for the hook and ladder truck to fit in, we add some parking spaces on the street and we get a more intimate zone in return."
Despite his successful agenda of restoring old urbanism while adhering to many principles of new urbanism, Riley's main goal transcends zoning codes and design standards.
"The main reason I ran for mayor was to achieve racial progress," Riley said. "I want the city where the Civil War started to usher in an era of racial justice and progress. "I hope Charleston will meet the long, historical test of that goal."