Tom Eblen

Eblen: Charleston, the transformed

Joe Riley is an evangelist for historic preservation, good urban design and proven strategies for making cities more livable and economically successful.

He founded the national Mayors' Institute for City Design. The Joseph P. Riley Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Studies at the College of Charleston is named for him. But Riley's best credential is his day job: Since 1975, for an unprecedented nine terms, he has been the mayor of Charleston, S.C.

People who know Charleston often remark on what a great city it is — the beautiful waterfront, the Spoleto arts festival and the colorfully painted historical homes. Those old enough to remember what the city used to be like talk about how much it has improved.

During Riley's tenure, Charleston's annual tourist trade has increased from 1.7 million to 4.4 million visitors. At the same time, the city has often made lists of the best places to live and do business.

Riley was in Lexington last Wednesday to speak to an overflow crowd at the Downtown Public Library. Many civic leaders were there, as were all four candidates for mayor.

With a rapid-fire PowerPoint presentation that lasted for more than an hour, Riley flashed slide after slide showing Charleston's transformation from the time when "our downtown almost died."

The pictures showed dozens of dilapidated buildings restored to elegance and commercial success; modest but well-designed public housing so attractive that expensive condos were later built across the street; neighborhoods and commercial streets rescued from neglect by city leaders who demanded and got high-quality private development; an elegant public park on what was once a waterfront eyesore.

"A big challenge was this vacant lot right in the middle of downtown," Riley said at one point, prompting the crowd to erupt in laughter. "Oh, you have one of those, too?"

A key factor in Charleston's success has been historic preservation. "We work hard to keep the bulldozers out," he said.

Historic preservation hasn't been so much about preserving the past — "we're not a movie set or a theme park," Riley said — but about creating an authentic, irreplaceable and human-scale environment where people naturally want to be. That also means insisting that new development be well designed, well built and, well, worthy of being in Charleston.

That means having effective laws and regulations, but also having the kind of professional architectural review processes that Lexington lacks. Such a process helps to ensure that new development is appropriate, well designed and in the best interests of the entire city and not just an individual developer or property owner.

"Try not to plop things down," Riley said of new development. "Make it work. Make it fit."

Excellence often is achieved with that last 5 percent of effort, the mayor said. He repeatedly gave examples of using his political skills to make sure that old buildings were saved, that money was found to restore them and that proposed new construction added to rather than detracted from the rest of the city. Riley said he once called then-President Bill Clinton to insist that a new federal building respect Charleston's downtown esthetic.

"There's never an excuse to build anything that doesn't add to the beauty of a city," Riley said, acknowledging that "the political land mines are all over the place."

Successful cities put a lot of emphasis on beautiful public space that attracts people. "The things of value are increasingly the things we own together," he said. "When you build a great public realm, the private money and development will follow."

Riley's strong leadership is controversial; he always has had a re-election opponent, and last time he had three. But Riley's approach has clearly worked for Charleston and most of its citizens. He was re-elected for an eighth time in 2007 with 64 percent of the vote.

City-building is a complicated stew, but the principles that Riley outlined are simple: vision, leadership and a commitment to long-term value for the entire city rather than just short-term profit for individuals.

When Lexington has followed those principles, it has enjoyed some of its greatest success: creating the Urban Services Boundary in 1958; restricting rural lot sizes in 1964 and 1999; starting the Purchase of Development Rights program in 2000; and creating historic districts over the past 50 years (often, though, after significant damage was already done.)

Lexington has failed when it ignored those principles and allowed tacky, vinyl-box housing, commercial sprawl, haphazard architecture and, since the 1950s, the destruction of classic downtown buildings to make way for parking lots, drab concrete boxes and ego-driven glass towers.

"Our success as a culture, economic and otherwise, will depend on our cities," Riley said. "We must treat them as precious heirlooms that we inherit and hold in trust for future generations."

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