The early autumn sun pours a golden glow through centuries-old windowpanes behind Mayor Riley’s desk. Sitting there, flanked by flags and columns on either side, he’s backlit by a haloed brightness. “I’ve got the number written down around here somewhere,” he says, hunting for one of many legal pads scattered about. Riley, with white wiry eyebrows cresting over the signature horn-rimmed glasses, looks as much the part of venerable preppy professor as elder statesman. Trim and fit, he moves with quick spryness that testifies to his years as a runner, yet he’s a bit stiffer now, like there’s a chronic crick in his 71-year-old neck. “Here, I found it—497 days to go,” he announces. And that was back in early September.
The countdown is on. When this magazine hits the stands on November 1, it’ll be more like 426 days before the four-decade Joe Riley era—some 14,200 days as the City of Charleston’s presiding officer and chief visionary—comes to a close. This time next year, we’ll be heading to the polls, in the wake of what is likely to be a wild and woolly election season, to determine who will become the 61st mayor since Charleston was incorporated in 1783—the only changing of the guard since December 15, 1975. Meanwhile, as potential contenders weigh their chances and plot campaign strategies, day by busy day, Joe Riley is winding down, or rather, winding up. It’s hard to tell.
One adjective stands out in a quick review of the now-yellowing newspaper and magazine clippings in the thick—and still growing thicker—Riley file at the Charleston County Library’s South Carolina Room. While early (circa 1977-78) articles refer to him as “the boy mayor,” the “little guy with glasses,” and “young, short, and mild-mannered,” the word that pops up time and again to describe Riley’s political marathon, which began in 1968 when the 25-year-old Charleston native and recent law school grad became the youngest member of the South Carolina House of Representatives, is “unprecedented.”
“Mayor Riley re-elected to an unprecedented fifth term,” The News and Courier proclaimed in 1992, and since then, of course, we’ve had the “unprecedented” sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth terms. There has never before been a final Riley year, till now. So what can we expect during this unprecedented grand finale? And what’s at stake as we prepare for a post-Riley Charleston?
The number of days remaining in office is far from the only thing that Mayor Riley is tracking on a legal pad. He pulls out a yellow sheet scrawled with a laundry list of 25 or so “priorities”—projects that are on the docket for this year. Top of his list is the completion of the Gaillard Center. “April 17th!” he exclaims, the date currently set for the Gaillard’s grand opening in advance of Spoleto 2015. “The Gaillard will be magnificent,” says Riley, who pushed for the city to contribute $71 million to the $142-million public/private project that features a 1,800-seat performance hall as well as 16,000 square feet of meeting and exhibition space plus municipal offices. “They’re building one of the great buildings of this city’s long history,” says the mayor, who has been a tireless promoter and fundraiser for the project. “An inspiring place for school children, for the arts, for people to gather in a place of beauty.”
In the next breath, and with equal enthusiasm, Riley points to the soon-to-open Higgins Pier at the end of the West Ashley Bikeway in the Maryville community, a project that is miniscule in price and scale compared to the Gaillard, but no less significant, because “it opens more beautiful waterfront access to our citizens,” Riley says, echoing one of his key platforms, dating back to when he began dreaming about and pushing for Waterfront Park back in 1979.
From a new West Ashley Senior Center to plans for affordable housing at Gadsdenboro Park; from a long-promised International African American Museum (design to be completed in the next 14 months and construction to begin in 2016) to the bicycle/pedestrian lane on the Legare Bridge; from four major drainage projects, including phase two of the Crosstown improvements, to finishing the West Ashley Greenway, which is funded in this year’s budget; from massive redevelopment efforts, including the Horizon Project in the MUSC environs and Magnolia and Morrison Drive in the Neck area, to the Mayor’s dogged support of I-526 completion and the new Concord Street cruise terminal—both highly controversial—plus numerous other projects not included here for lack of space (see sidebar, page 146), the mayor has an undeniably ambitious agenda, if not an overwhelming one.
And that’s above and beyond the daily grind of 740 city workers to oversee; trash to be picked up; streets to be patrolled; BAR meetings; and yes, bar ordinances, such as the hotly contested midnight closings for new restaurants and bars in the entertainment district and the recently passed one-year moratorium on new establishments planning to serve alcohol. Add to this the lengthy whereas’es and heretofores of normal city council deliberations, and it’s clear this last year won’t be a lame-duck term. For this tireless student of the city, there’ll be no senior year slide.
“It should be one of the busiest times that I’ve had as mayor,” Riley says, finally putting his list down, adjusting his immaculately tied tie. “What I picture is running through the finish line, breaking the tape with a kick in my step,” he adds with an energetic tempo in his tenor voice. “These next 400-some days are not a time of reflection and slowing down, but a felt time of action and accomplishment and working very hard. My vision is shaped by my connection to the people of this city—their hearts and aspirations, their goals and challenges.”
Master of the Public Realm
If there’s a unifying theme, a narrative thread, that runs through Joe Riley’s 40-year reign, it’s his belief that cities are the heart of a just democracy. That because the urban experience brings people of all walks of life together, a vibrant public realm creates the essence and soul of community, of citizenship. More simply, he believes in place making. He avows beauty, access, excellence. Mediocrity: not so much.
Riley took office at the height of “white flight” and suburban growth across the Southeast, but “I always believed human nature was not going to reject the urban experience, but rather embrace it because of its diversity and dynamism,” he says. His instinct was reinforced when the still-new mayor was invited to participate in a small group tour of urban restoration initiatives in England and Germany, sponsored by the German Marshall Fund. “I was young in this job and didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, but in those cities I saw the value of the public realm, the parks and boulevards, places where people shared things together.”
Riley initially ran on a platform of healing Charleston’s racial divide, a campaign pledge that nearly 40 years later he’s still working on, but he’s certainly credited for healing and reinvigorating what was then a crime-ridden decaying urban core. Where Charleston Place now anchors a bustling King Street, prostitutes and drug dealers once held forth in a five-block vacant eyesore. What is now Waterfront Park was salvaged from would-be condo developers and given to the people—black and white, rich and poor, tourist and resident. During Riley’s tenure the Market got a facelift, and first-class public venues such as The Joe (stadium), the South Carolina Aquarium, a restored Dock Street Theatre, and Brittlebank Park opened. He demanded that the city’s affordable housing be built with the same high aesthetic standards as market-price housing and created a Business and Technology Center to encourage economic opportunity on the East Side. The list goes on and on, as do Riley’s accolades and awards (see timeline below).
And he’s been an unrelenting champion of the arts, helping woo Gian Carlo Menotti and the Spoleto Festival here in 1977 and launching Piccolo, MOJA, and other arts initiatives, because, as he said in his 2013 Spoleto opening remarks, and repeats, more or less each year, “When we are exposed to the beauty and quest for excellence…we can’t be comfortable with just getting by. Whether it’s in the public spaces or buildings we create, whether it’s about how we lead our life individually or civically, [art] challenges us to excel.” Aaron Copland may have written “Fanfare for the Common Man,” the somber, soaring tune that opens each Festival, but Joe Riley embodies it. “Cities must be places where everyone’s heart can sing,” he often says.
Despite Riley’s rah-rah rhetoric and unflappable passion for livable cities and urban design, Charleston’s successes have come at a price, and during his last year as mayor, Riley is still plagued by some of the same issues he warned about in the ’80s. Today residents speak at City Council meetings and write letters to the editor bemoaning a small historic city trampled by tourists, streets tangled with traffic, and vistas dwarfed by Carnival Cruise ships. If the city is a place where all hearts can sing, many of those singing today, loudly and with concern, are repeating the same song, just a slightly different verse, that Riley himself intoned when announcing his run for a third term: “The key planning issue in this city, in this year and in the next decade, is tourism management,” he stated. A 1984 News and Courier article dubbed Riley the “chief architect of a changing Charleston,” noting the challenge he faced was “to balance change against the need to retain all that Charlestonians hold to be sacrosanct.”
Riley has remarked, time and again, that the “key thread in all of our plans is maintaining a high-quality residential presence.” In 1985, he proposed a ban on new hotels (when lodging rooms on the peninsula numbered 1,700), warning that it was “important that we don’t allow visitor accommodations to become an unnecessarily large percentage of our land area in the peninsula.” Today, as his final term draws to a close, tourism demand and market forces seem to have changed that tune, as the peninsula is poised to roll out 429 new hotel rooms via projects currently underway, bringing the 2015 total to 4,142. Meanwhile the peninsula’s “land area” has not expanded, though the city of Charleston’s footprint certainly has. Riley’s reign has seen, some would say, rampant annexation, including large swaths of West Ashley, the Neck area, and Daniel Island, as well as a failed attempt to swallow James Island, one of Riley’s few political losses.
The issues and concerns regarding preservation, transportation, growth, and livability that face the city today are critical to our future, suggests Kitty Robinson, director of Historic Charleston Foundation and chair of the Mayor’s recently appointed Tourism Management Plan Advisory Committee. Under Riley’s leadership, Charleston enacted the country’s first Tourism Management Plan in 1978, followed by updates in 1994 and 1998; but today, as the region rides a still-rising wave of international press and No. 1 rankings, the fragile tourist/resident balance seems more tenuous than ever. “These questions about transportation and mass transit are not just related to tourism management but also to the management of a growing, thriving city,” says Robinson, who despite challenging the mayor for stricter cruise ship regulation and on other issues has a deep and abiding respect for Riley’s “enormous vision” for Charleston and his “inclusivity and pure sincerity in listening to what citizens have to say.”
Given current growth pressure, Robinson believes that preserving the city’s historic diversity is as crucial as preserving its historic buildings and architecture. “Gentrification needs to be looked at very carefully,” she suggests. “We need to somehow ensure that citizens who live here now can remain in the city, that we not succumb to gentrification. This is a national issue as well as a local one and deserves serious consideration.”
A Step Back
As Riley’s last year approaches, the city’s other Joe—the non-South of Broad, non-white, non-elected but politically astute and outspoken Joe, i.e. The Reverend Joe Darby, retired senior pastor of Morris Brown AME Church—echoes Robinson’s concern. “There’s no doubt that Mayor Riley has revitalized the city, especially the peninsula, transforming it into a tourist destination and attracting innovative tech companies and Boeing, but a rising tide still does not float all boats,” Darby warns. “A tourist-based economy means a lot of service industry jobs, lower-paying jobs; and more tourism can mean that Charleston becomes less hospitable to locals.”
In terms of racial reconciliation, Darby credits Riley’s sensitivity and his desire and efforts to foster dialogue. “In the middle there, he’s done good work,” says Darby, noting how Riley appointed African Americans such as former police chief Reuben Greenberg to key leadership roles and made significant progress in addressing affordable housing issues. However, Darby adds, “gentrification under the Mayor’s watch has actually made the peninsula a far less diverse place.
“He’s been bold and vocal on the African American museum and was out in front on the march to Columbia [to support removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse].” But there are still serious concerns about law enforcement and serious anger about the handling of the 2007 Sofa Super Store fire (which killed nine firefighters, who, some say, were at risk due to outdated equipment) and more recently about the Denzel Curnell death (the 19-year-old who died from a gunshot wound during a confrontation with police earlier this year), according to Darby.
“Mayor Riley is extremely determined, but there’s a thin line between determination and stubbornness. Then when you combine stubbornness and loyalty, it can get tricky,” he suggests, pointing to issues toward the end of Chief Greenberg’s tenure, when many felt it was time for a change. “I admire the mayor’s determination, his willingness to innovate, his openness to discussion, but I’ve also found he has little tolerance for disagreement.”
For this last year of his last term, Darby hopes that his friend Joe will “take a step back and do work that benefits the entire community,” making sure downtown schools have the same resources as Mount Pleasant schools, for example, and ensuring that the wishes and input of the existing community are considered when creating redevelopment plans for the base of the old Grace Bridge.
Looking toward a future without Riley, many people, including Robinson and Darby, detect a palpable anxiety in town. “I hear it all around me, it pops up in general conversations, people don’t know what to expect. It’s hard to imagine this city without Joe Riley’s leadership,” Robinson says. “He’s set a standard of excellence that will be hard to match.”
Philanthropist, advocate, and former congressional candidate Linda Ketner, whom many considered a top contender to succeed Riley (she’s confirmed she’s not running), also views this as a tenuous moment. “Mayor Riley has created an incomparable jewel here, and we are all the beneficiaries. Whether you are talking preservation, the arts, wine and food, our economy, LGBT rights, the status of women and African Americans, housing and homelessness, our city far surpasses others in our region and beyond,” Ketner says. “But our seeds of success could bear dangerous fruit. Traffic and transportation, housing costs, drainage, racial concerns, tourism management, careful development on the islands and West Ashley, gentrification, and protection of our environment are just a few of the challenges our next mayor will face. In many ways, Charleston is at a tipping point where our growth in popularity could be the ruination of a livable city.”
Ketner hopes that our next mayor will have the wisdom, vision, and integrity to balance the scale, not tip it. And, she adds, “Because great leadership has always been selfless, I hope that he or she will put our best interest before his or her own.”
“I certainly hope we get someone as good as Joe,” Darby adds. “What I love about Joe is that what you see is what you get.” And so for one more year, Charleston gets a mayor who sees a vibrant, diverse, beautiful, livable urban fabric, and sees, scribbled on a legal pad on his desk, a lengthy punch list of projects and goals he’d like to accomplish to close in on that vision. Doable? That’s to be determined. But it won’t be for lack of spirited energy from this mayor whose swansong will remain tuned to his conviction that a city should be a place “where hearts can sing,” even amidst the background hum of tourists, traffic, and construction.
“What gets me up in the morning in this job is accomplishing things for the people of Charleston,” Riley says. That was true on day one in 1975, and will be for the next 426 days.