SAVANNAHIANS don’t usually like to concede glory to our sister city to the north, but when former Charleston mayor Joe Riley speaks, we all best listen.
“A city should be a place where every citizen’s heart can sing,” he told a standing room-only crowd at the Savannah Theatre on Oct. 20.
The 72 year-old Lowcountry native served 40 years—ten consecutive terms—before retiring in January, famously transforming the Holy City from a wilting wasteland of Southern nostalgia to an internationally-heralded urban jewel.
He bucked the status quo in the 1970s by hiring the city’s first black police chief and investing municipal money to revitalize the downtown district, paving the way for King Street’s prosperity and the popularity of the Spoleto Festival.
The next decade, he spearheaded the development of the riverfront, which now hosts a 12-acre public park, the South Carolina Aquarium and the future International African American Museum at Gadsen’s Wharf, set to open in early 2019.
Beloved by his constituents for transforming forgotten neighborhoods and creating economic opportunities, Riley also proved adept at crisis management, shepherding the city through the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and the horror of the Emanuel A.M.E. shooting that killed nine church members last year.
His legacy of civic vision, infrastructure investment and compassionate populism set up Charleston for a future of success, but can it translate beyond the city limits?
To find out, the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority invited Riley to speak as part of its semi-annual Savannah Urbanism Series. Presented by Engel & Volkers Savannah with a cocktail hour sponsored by the Downtown Neighborhood Association, the evening lecture brought out concerned citizens, real estate professionals and urban planning wonks eager to hear his insights.
“You have to have a strategic plan,” admonished Riley of designing a thriving, shared public realm.
“We make 50-year decisions, and we make 300-year decisions, and we have to know which is which.”
Riley may be a Southern son, but there was no sleepy drawl here—the mayor came in talking a mile a minute, speedily flipping through before-and-after slides of buildings and spaces transformed, including downtown parking garage that looks nothing like a parking garage. The handsome edifice went on to win a design award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
“They kept telling me that form had to follow function,” he grinned. “I said, ‘why?’
“There’s never an excuse to build anything that doesn’t add to the beauty of a city,” he scolded playfully, sparking off several murmurs of “hear, hear!” from the audience.
Of particular relevance to the audience was the fact that Riley helped Charleston develop America’s first tourism management plan in 1978, honoring the demand of residents to preserve their quality of life amidst a growing hospitality sector. (Savannah established its Tourism Management & Ambassadorship Department in 2014.)
Short in stature but towering with twinkle-eyed charisma, Riley acknowledged the blowback he received at the beginning of his tenure for reaching beyond known boundaries, both geographical and social. While every other city was building isolated public projects to house the poor, he saw an opportunity for development through integrating subsidized housing into the rest of the city.
“We started in the poorer neighborhoods,” he explained of what he refers to as the “restoration ethic” of purchasing, renovating and renting homes through the city’s housing authority.
“It’s a holistic thing. You’ve got to include everybody.”
Those efforts worked to raise the quality of life throughout the city, and Riley became known as a guru in urban planning circles.
“He was such a pioneer when it came to scattered site public housing. It’s now the model, but he did it before everyone else was even talking about it,” marvels Kevin Klinkenberg, director of the SDRA and urban planner.
“It’s great for people and it’s great for neighborhoods for low income families to blend with middle class families. To many, that’s a revolutionary idea, but he approached it as simple common sense.”’
Riley’s uninterrupted reign generated a tremendous list of other civic accomplishments (though he is not without his detractors, who criticize him for the gentrification that has pushed out some of Charleston’s other lower-income families, many of them African American, to the outskirts of the city.)
Whether those same kinds of projects and policies could be put into effect in Savannah is debatable.
While many draw comparisons between the two lovely Southern coastal cities, Savannah is a vastly different municipality than Charleston, with a different history and a distinct set of challenges and attributes.
Our city manager-centric form of government means that no individual mayor, no matter how gifted, could ever do what Joe Riley has done for Charleston. But we shouldn’t use Savannah’s council-manager system as a crutch, implore those who champion the kind of civic progress that yields economic and social payoffs.
“Mayor Riley talks about 300-year decisions, and Savannah has a few of those on our horizon,” reminds Klinkenberg, referring to the conversations around demolishing the civic center, the development of a west side arena and the inevitable expansion of downtown towards the west.
“Today’s decision makers will leave a legacy that will affect Savannah for a very long time.”
Just as Savannah residents continue to live by General Oglethorpe’s enduring urban design of 1733, future generations will be affected by the massive taxpayer projects of the early 21st century for eons–for better or for worse. In a way, we’re lucky that civic power is spread around here, because it gives opportunity for citizen participation—if we choose to participate.
“An informed public is really important. We have to hold our officials accountable to make sure things get done well. It’s important that everyone has their voices heard and that people are advocating for quality,” continues Klinkenberg.
“The hardest part is we have to look past how things are today. It has to be a group effort.”
For Riley, it starts with attention to detail and an uncompromising commitment to the beauty of a place: Two extra feet of sidewalk here, a prettier parking garage there, integrated neighborhoods.
It all ultimately translates to the unilateral enforcement of zoning codes and a public demand for aesthetic integrity.
“If it’s civic, you’re part of it,” reminded the fast-talking mayor near the end of his speech.
“Does it feel like it belongs to you? Because it should.”