Designing Mayor

January 03, 1994|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Charleston, South Carolina. -- Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. believes a mayor should be master designer and micro-manager. In his world there's no detail, from the design of new parking garages to the gravel mix for park walkways, that doesn't qualify as his personal concern.

People might question a mayor mucking around in such details. But in an age of coast-to-coast term-limit fever, Mayor Riley, 50, is an anomaly. After 18 years in office, he could be mayor for life. He has no such intention; he's running for governor of South Carolina this year. But one has to ask -- how in the world has he stayed so popular so long?

Some points are obvious. The mayor has not just calmed racial tensions but worked closely with African-Americans, who are 42 percent of Charleston's population. Blacks hold major posts, including chief of police (Reuben Greenberg, one of the nation's chief proponents of community policing).

Mayor Riley has annexed aggressively, broadening the city tax base. His leadership during and after the 1989 visit of Hurricane Hugo won broad praise. He's personable. Jogging daily through Charleston streets, he's accessible, too.

But if you're looking for Mr. Riley's most distinguishing mark, you can find it in the title of one of his speeches -- ''The Mayor As Urban Designer.'' He believes ''the lasting mark of a civilization is the city.'' Americans may have left cities by the millions, he notes, ''but we need our cities more than ever.''

Mayor Riley argues that a city's parks, streets, alleys, sidewalks, public buildings and downtowns constitute an enduring ''public realm'' in a way no shopping mall ever could. ''A city's beauty or lack of it shapes a metropolitan area's sense of itself, indeed the reality of itself,'' he says.

In Charleston today, there are literally hundreds of projects which bear Joe Riley's indelible stamp.

He so despised the ugly parking garages rising in Charleston that he ''forced architects to come up with better designs'' -- one of which won a Presidential Design Award.

He led Charlestonians in building what he called ''a gift to the future'' -- a stunningly designed Waterfront Park. The site was messy, with decayed piers. An entrepreneur had bought the land, hoping to put up a high-rise. Mayor Riley had the city intervene, buy the land and create a park which offers everything from quiet living-room-like sitting areas to a pier with swings for grown-ups.

Parks, the mayor contends, ''give oxygen to the city, soften the hard edges of urban life, invigorate us, give us peace and repose. No city has too many parks.''

When the housing authority moved to construct a multihundred-unit building, Mayor Riley said it would ''ignore the collective experience of Western civilization about building human-scale neighborhoods, with thousands of strings of affection and respect to tie their residents to their fellows.'' He began a program of scattered-site public housing -- totaling 1,200 units by now. Some are so appealing that they've actually attracted private redevelopment around them.

Mayor Riley conceived the $100 million Charleston Place development, a massive block of hotels and shops that filled an unsightly empty block and linked two decaying shopping streets.

Tourism is big business in historic Charleston, but the crowds, buses and carriages required, Mayor Riley believed, ''tourist management.'' So today there's a stunning $10 million Visitor Center, in a remodeled 19th-century train depot. Visitors can park there, pick up maps, see films and get briefings about Charleston's rich past, and then board rubber-tired trolleys to ride all around town.

The Riley formula may sound dictatorial. But he welcomes -- and gets -- citizen involvement. Among other things, citizens keep Charleston graffiti-free; any defacement gets erased in hours.

A city's most enduring asset, Mayor Riley asserts, is ''an aroused citizenry that's passionately interested in physical development, willing to say what they believe is ugly, what's beautiful.''

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.


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