Building on Success: The Pride of Joseph P. Riley, Jr.
The Urban Land Institute J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development was established in January 2000 to recognize an individual or a person representing an institution whose career demonstrates a commitment to the highest standards of responsible development. The $100,000 prize honors the legacy of legendary Kansas City, Missouri, developer J.C. Nichols (1880-1950), a founding ULI member who is widely regarded as one of America’s most influential entrepreneurs in land use during the First half of the 20th century. The Honorable Joseph P. Riley, Jr., mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, is the first recipient of the prize.
It’s an incredibly hot August day at Waterfront Park in Charleston, South Carolina, but the city’s mayor, Joseph P. Riley, Jr., is not fazed by the heat as he enthusiastically describes subtle features of the park that add to its overall aura of peacefulness. The reddish-brown gravel path between the lawn and the Cooper River is dense enough to accommodate wheelchairs, and the gravel’s color is a pleasing transition from the park to the water, Mayor Riley points out.
The mayor knows this firsthand, because he personally collected and inspected gravel samples to make certain the park’s pathway was just right. He sketched the design for Waterfront Park’s garden “rooms,” which are several shaded areas, separated by small hedges, with benches for meditation, reflection or simply relaxing. Mayor Riley made certain the park’s stone border was just the right height (14 inches) to sit on or to serve as a footrest from nearby benches. It was his idea to install bench swings in covered pavilions on the park’s pier. Mayor Riley rejected a proposal to ban children from splashing in the park’s Vendue Fountain. And he insisted that all areas remain open to the public and never be closed, even partially, for private events.
For this visionary, the key to excellent urban development is to make every detail count, and to create an atmosphere of inclusiveness, rather than exclusiveness. The Honorable Joseph P. Riley, Jr., mayor of Charleston for 25 years, feels a keen responsibility to let nothing fall through — especially in the design of public places.
“A city should be a place with such beauty and order that it is inspirational. A key component of urban design is a belief in the value of the public realm, which every citizen owns,” he says. “If we are a nation where all the nest zones are privately owned, then what we own together as citizens is not very much. The greatest cities are those with the most beautiful public places, and that is what we’ve sought to achieve in Charleston.”
It is this firm dedication to top-quality urban design for Charleston that led to Mayor Riley being selected as the first recipient of the Urban Land Institute J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development. The $100,000 prize is named for legendary Kansas City, Missouri, developer Jesse Clyde Nichols, a ULI founding member.
A jury chaired by Robert C. Larson, managing director of Lazard Freres in New York and chairman of the ULI Foundation, selected Mayor Riley for the ULI J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development. “Mayor Riley’s selection for the ULI J.C. Nichols Prize reflects his extraordinary contribution to Charleston’s economic and social well-being,” Larson says. “Through his leadership, Charleston has achieved an urban revival that sets the standard for many cities throughout the United States and demonstrates how the public sector and the private sector can work together to advance the common good.”
Whether Mayor Riley is describing a grand hotel or a pump station, it is obvious that every development in Charleston must contribute to the community’s values, spirit and cohesiveness — the principles espoused nearly 100 years ago by J.C. Nichols.
“There is no excuse for anything to ever be built that does not add to the beauty of a city,” Riley says. “Every investment in beauty yields an economic payoff. If you build beautiful places — whether they are parks, parking garages, or public housing — the land next to these places becomes more successful. They become catalytic agents to generate economic activity.”
When Mayor Riley took office in 1975, Charleston’s central business district was “essentially dead,” he says. He and his advisers created a strategic plan for reviving the city, which included specific locations for hotels — all on main streets of the city, to “get people on the streets and generate activity,” Riley says. The plan barred much development directly on the waterfront, because the goal was to encourage downtown growth but keep the city’s waterfront open to the public. In fact, the 13 acres now occupied by Waterfront Park were slated for a commercial high-rise project. To keep the parcel accessible to the public, the mayor arranged a land swap and pieced together financing to acquire the site for the park.
The first major hotel to spark Charleston’s revival was Charleston Place, which, backed by a mix of public and private financing, opened in 1986. It is a magnificent, 442-room structure with grand chandeliers and sweeping staircases.
“We knew we were putting it (Charleston Place) in a sick part of town, but we also knew that if we got the right critical mass there, the area would come back to life,” Mayor Riley says. Now, even in mid-August, when Charleston’s steamy weather might hamper the city’s tourism business, Charleston Place is booked solid. The bottom floor is filled with trendy retail shops and streets on either side are packed with specialty shops, gift shops, and eateries. The sidewalks are clean, wide, and inviting.
“You don’t make a city beautiful just to attract visitors. If you make a city special for those who live there, then the tourists will come. When the people of Charleston come downtown, they come to a place they own, a place that gives them pride in their city,” Mayor Riley says.
Charlestonian and ULI member John C. Darby credits Mayor Riley with two significant achievements: one being the revitalization of downtown. “He is a master at mobilizing public/private partnerships,” says Darby, vice president of The Beach Company. In past years, Darby’s firm worked with the city on downtown projects financed in part by Urban Development Action Grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “Joe [Riley] knew how to get the biggest bang for the buck with those federal grants, how to leverage them to the fullest extent,” Darby says.
Riley’s second great achievement, Darby says, is the fact that he’s held the office of mayor for 25 years. “Over the years, his focus has shifted from generating urban revitalization and more tourism to striking a balance between growth and preservation eVorts. He has maintained a strong, diverse support base,” Darby says.
Since Mayor Riley was first elected as Charleston’s mayor in 1975, the city has achieved a substantial decrease in crime, revitalized its historic downtown district, increased its aVordable housing stock, and experienced dramatic growth in its Spoleto Festival U.S.A., a world-class arts festival held each spring.
However, the success is not without side effects. Riley recently created a task force to examine the issue of downtown gentrification, and to work on a solution to the problem of displacement of moderate-income residents and small businesses by more affluent, and sometimes absentee, owners. “With the economy going great guns, the pace of displacement has accelerated,” says John Hildreth, a member of the gentrification task force and the southeastern director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “But, he [Mayor Riley] took the right approach by creating a group to work together on this. He has an incredible ability to bring people together, to build consensus.”
In addition to gentrification, another major challenge for Riley is managing the area’s growth, including a proposed expansion of the city’s port. The city council rejected the original terminal construction proposal as simply too large, straining area roads with increased truck traffic. Instead, council members are seeking a smaller project. “This is a city where scale is everything, and we felt the original expansion plan was not the appropriate scale,” Riley says.
Years ago, the mayor convinced Charleston citizens to approve a local sales tax to help bring in much-needed revenue for economic development and public projects. As the area’s economy strengthened, real property values rose (Charleston’s median home price rose from $74,500 to $131,700 between 1989 and 1999), and the city’s property tax rate was reduced, as the reduction was offset by the sales tax revenue. This November, the city’s residents will vote on a referendum to increase the sales tax by one-half of a penny, with the revenue going for development rights acquisition and land acquisition to give permanent protection to some of Charleston’s prized farmland, marshes and forests.
“Controlling sprawl does not mean stopping growth,” Riley says. A no-growth policy is bad public policy, because it leads to pent-up demand that explodes sooner or later. Controlling sprawl means strategically shaping growth. If we don’t do that, then we are giving a nation of diminished value to our great grandchildren.”
Part of Charleston’s overall growth plan is based on direct input from its younger residents. Recently, city planners visited area schools to discuss plans for new development. “The kids talked about not being able to ride their bikes to visit schoolmates because a big road separated them from other neighborhoods. They said they couldn’t ride up to a corner store, because there was no corner store,” Riley says.
Daniel Island, one of several outlying areas annexed by the city, is being developed as a new urbanist community. It’s designed as a total community with corner stores serving nearby homes, with sidewalks and green strips connecting the entire project. “We felt we should focus on the qualities of new urbanism that we celebrate in downtown Charleston,” Riley says.
According to Dana Beach, executive director of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, Riley’s support of the development on Daniel Island illustrates his desire to restructure growth in an environmentally, fiscally sound manner. “Our challenge is to translate what we know about functional neighborhoods, based on what we’ve learned from downtown, and apply that to suburbs that are not yet fully developed,” Beach says. “If anyone can do this, Joe Riley can. He’s a visionary to be sure, but more important, he sees his vision through to reality.”
Howard Duvall, executive director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina, describes Mayor Riley as a “worker, not a glad-hander” with no fear of taking political risks. “He’ll get right in the middle of a debate and then do what he feels is best for the city,” Duvall says.
While many mayors share Riley’s passion for sound urban planning, few have his extensive knowledge of the design process, notes ULI senior resident fellow William H. Hudnut III, a former mayor of Indianapolis and a former member of the U.S. Congress. “Mayor Riley knows how cities are glued together by streets, parks and businesses. His understanding of urban design is unusual for many mayors,” Hudnut says.
ULI Vice President Harry Frampton III, president of East West Partners in Beaver Creek, Colorado, is very familiar with Mayor Riley’s design expertise. East West Partners is developing a residential condominium project next to Charleston’s Waterfront Park. During a recent meeting to review plans, Frampton was surprised to see the mayor kneeling over the blueprints, studying every detail. “Mayor Riley was involved in the discussions on hardware, window designs, and colors, and he made suggestions for improvements, many of which we adopted,” Frampton says. “Our company has worked in a lot of cities, but I’ve never seen a government official get so involved in the essence of a project. He was very concerned about how the units would look not just when they were finished, but 30 years from now. That is impressive.”
A former president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Mayor Riley was a founder of the Mayors’ Institute for City Design. The institute, which has assisted mayors from more than 100 communities, provides advice through panels of sociologists, municipal planners, traffic engineers and landscape architects. “We [mayors] needed a place where mayors could become familiar with how urban design works,” Riley says. “Mayors have a lot influence over development in their communities, but they rarely have training in urban design. Yet, when they leave office, the development that occurred when they served is how they are remembered.”
The Honorable Joseph P. Riley, Jr. will be remembered for many projects. The city’s latest completed work, the $69 million South Carolina Aquarium, opened last May and expects up to 1 million visitors by the end of its first full year of operation. First proposed by the mayor in the 1980s, it features the aquatic environment of the entire state, from river otters in the mountains to Moon Jellies in the ocean.
“What we’re doing in Charleston is creating places that give people wonderful memories,” Riley says. “The idea is to give citizens pride in their communities by creating places that give them a sense of ownership, of belonging. That’s the true American Dream.”