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Charleston, S.C. mayor extols virtues of design standards during Lexington talk

Charleston, S.C., works hard to keep bulldozers out of its downtown because the city wants to preserve its old buildings, Mayor Joseph Riley told a Lexington audience Wednesday night.

"Cities need to preserve memories — memories of who used to be there, what used to be there, the scale and the texture of the city," he said.

Riley is regarded as an expert on urban design and livability issues. He is a founder of the Mayor's Institute for City Design and has advised mayors across the United States.

Riley spoke to an overflow crowd at the Lexington Public Library in an appearance sponsored by the University of Kentucky Gaines Center for the Humanities and the Fayette Alliance.

Charleston enacted historic zoning in 1931, the first city to take that step. "People in Charleston had an intuition that we needed to preserve our historic buildings," said Riley, who is in his ninth term as mayor.

The city also was a leader in adopting guidelines that set design standards for construction. "Charleston would not be the place it is today without them," he said.

Several years ago, Riley said, Charleston received a grant for public housing and hired an architect. The architect's design for the houses was so ugly, "We fired him and hired somebody else," the mayor said.

Whether a building is public or private, "there is no excuse for anything to be built that doesn't add to the beauty of the city," he said. "A city should be a place where every citizen's heart can sing."

Vibrant downtowns are important, not just for economic development possibilities but because they are the part of the community "the public owns together. They represent shared citizenship," he said.

After the lecture, Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry was asked whether Lexington could profit by having a set of design guidelines for downtown construction. Newberry said the city has such guidelines for the Courthouse Area Design Review Zone and for H-1 districts. "I'm not particularly impressed by how they have been implemented," he said.