August 03, 2015

Charleston Mayor Is Sold on New Urbanism

By Amos Maki
– The Commercial Appeal –

As Memphis officials continue seeking ways to deal with urban sprawl, Charleston, S.C., Mayor Joe Riley was in town Tuesday preaching the gospel of smart growth and new urbanism.

Riley, in his eighth term, was at Bridges Inc. Downtown touting smart growth to a lunch crowd of about 400 people.

Described by his detractors as a dictator and by his supporters as a visionary, Riley is above all else a lover of cities.

“This isn’t a rural country anymore,” Riley told the crowd. “Our success, socially and economically, increasingly depends on what kind of cities we have. The city is a place where every citizen’s heart should sing.”

“He obviously understands everything about city building,” said Rusty Bloodworth, executive vice president of Memphis-based Boyle Investment Co. and one of the chief local supporters of smart growth. “He’s probably as well-credentialed as anyone in the country at the craft of creating great places.”

Smart growth, or new urbanism, combines residential and commercial projects while accommodating vehicular and pedestrian traffic. The concept features various-sized and various-priced dwellings built as high-density rates and integrated with a “commercial core” of storefronts and strategically placed gathering spaces – all within walking distance.

Memphis and Shelby County officials are in the midst of developing a “unified development code” for the metropolitan area.

Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton said Riley’s approach shows that smart planning can happen anywhere, not just in big cities on the coasts, as long as the public is involved and supportive.

“The biggest thing is that it’s doable,” Wharton said. “When it comes to our environment and our surroundings, we have to answer to the public.”

Charleston, under Riley’s leadership, has revitalized its historic downtown area and business district, reduced crime and created new parks.

The city has also transformed its affordable housing complexes from areas where the city’s poorest citizens were segregated in dreary public housing to one that was attractive and inclusive. Now, middle-class workers live side by side with the city’s elite.

During the past 30 years, the city’s tourism industry has surged and retailers and residents began pouring into the downtown area.

When Riley was elected in 1975, Charleston had 1.7 million tourists visit the city. That number now stands at 4.5 million annually.

Today, downtown Charleston is thriving. On King Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, Saks Fifth Avenue opened a store. Charleston Place, a major shopping and hotel complex, welcomes visitors from across the country.

Much of the revitalization centered around improving and strengthening the city’s “public realm,” which to Riley means virtually everything citizens experience away from their homes.

From creation of new parks and the preservation of old ones, to the rejuvenation of downtown, Riley said careful stewardship of the public realm can produce a great city.

“You need a healthy downtown,” Riley said. “It’s part of the public realm, meaning everybody owns it. When it looks good, then people feel better about it and themselves.”

Riley used every tool at his disposal to transform Charleston.

Instead of razing abandoned or dilapidated buildings, Riley ordered them to be restored and redeveloped.

Instead of caving in to the wishes of developers and city planning bureaucrats, Riley simply said no.

Instead of allowing seas of asphalt parking lots across the city, Riley insisted that buildings be built closer to the street and that parking garages be designed to include ground floor retail or resemble anything other than a typical parking garage.

Riley is also a believer in smart planning, the kind that makes money for developers while producing sustainable communities.

“Without it being well planned, you do create a development that is not sustainable,” he said. “It’s just a matter of good community planning as opposed to letting what will happen happen, which produces an end result that is not sustainable.”