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A mayor’s perspective: 40 years of changing Charleston

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Sitting in his office in Charleston City Hall, Mayor Joe Riley said he wanted to be a bridge builder between whites and blacks when he took office in 1975. (Photo/Kathy Allen)
Sitting in his office in Charleston City Hall, Mayor Joe Riley said he wanted to be a bridge builder between whites and blacks when he took office in 1975. (Photo/Kathy Allen)

Editor’s note: The Charleston Regional Business Journal published a special section on Charleston Mayor Joe Riley’s four decades in office in the Aug. 24 edition of the Business Journal. With the election of a new mayor set for next week, today we’re publishing a long-form story from that section about Riley’s time in office and his vision for the future.

By Liz Segrist
Published Oct. 30, 2015

Joseph P. Riley Jr. rushed to get his holiday shopping finished on Christmas Eve in 1975.

He parked his car and hurried up to King Street, where he stopped short. The street was completely devoid of pedestrians and shoppers. A few stores were open, but most were boarded-up or empty.

“I looked up the street. I looked up the side streets. There was nobody there on the busiest shopping day of the year,” Riley said. “That’s what had happened to King Street.”

Riley said growing up in Charleston was a blessing, and he draws upon those early childhood experiences each day.
Riley said growing up in Charleston was a blessing, and he draws upon those early childhood experiences each day.
The Lower King Street of Riley’s youth in the 1940s and 1950s was known across the state as a shopping destination. But by the 1970s, King Street was like many other main streets around the country: Few shops remained, many storefronts were vacant and crime was high.

White flight had moved many downtown residents to the suburbs, where big-box stores and cookie-cutter neighborhoods flourished. Cities around the country were on the decline as suburban sprawl took root.

The Charleston peninsula was crime-ridden and plagued by unemployment. Businesses were not investing in office, retail or restaurant space on the peninsula. King Street was not considered safe by many.

“It was going the route that most American Main streets went: dying, gone, eliminated as a shopping destination,” Riley said.

Riley had been dismayed by the changes. But now he was mayor. He wanted to transform Charleston’s crumbling city center into a bustling downtown by cutting down on crime, creating new parks, improving race relations and bringing businesses back to the peninsula.

Riley said he did not look to other cities or haphazardly decide to build something. He studied Charleston and its layout, issues, ecosystem and population.

He wanted downtown Charleston to entice more visitors and residents to spend time shopping, eating and meandering the main streets like they used to. He envisioned people relaxing in public parks along the water and companies vying for a downtown address. He hoped to see King Street filled with pedestrians and lined with storefronts.

Riley needed a plan to spark the revival. His next steps would ripple across decades, determining whether downtown would become a shell of itself or a special place where creative people and businesses wanted to be — a city where all residents could coexist.

Mayor Riley on 40 years of leading Charleston from Charleston Business Journal on Vimeo.

King Street’s renaissance

Soon after taking office, Riley began pursuing the idea of a large-scale hotel and retail development along Meeting and Market streets. Riley saw the project — which would become Belmond Charleston Place — as the catalyst to bringing money, development and tourism back to the peninsula. Preservationists saw it as a bane to the charm and feel of downtown and a sign that the city was changing for the worse.

The first concept, a 14-story hotel and convention center developed by Holywell Corp., was approved by City Council in the late 1970s. The uproar from preservationist and neighborhood groups resulted in several lawsuits filed against the city in an attempt to stave off plans. An appeals court sided with the city in 1980.

Demolition began in 1981, but in 1983 construction came to a screeching halt when Holywell told the city it could not obtain its construction loan, according to The Post and Courier archives.

The project had already been in the works for more than six years. Millions of dollars had been poured into it. Riley had pinned all his hopes for a revitalized urban core on the success of it, and without warning, it had lost its developers and its funding.

Riley said he knew the development would be the jumping-off point for other businesses to locate in the area. He believed it would turn downtown into a place citizens treasured. He trusted his instincts, ignoring the constant drumbeat of opposition, and brought on new developers.

David Cordish, Robert Embry and Alfred Taubman took over the project and scaled it down to the Charleston Place of today, The Post and Courier said. Construction picked up in 1985, and the city celebrated the opening of the nearly $90 million hotel in 1986.

Riley agreed with those who said the peninsula would never be the same, but to a different end. Riley credits the Charleston Place project as the catalyst for the growth that defines Charleston today as a place people want to live, work, shop and visit.

It was the reason Saks Fifth Avenue chose King Street for its department store in 1996, when it usually opted for bigger cities. It was the spark that led other national retailers, like Kate Spade and Michael Kors, to follow suit.

Lower King Street currently boasts a retail vacancy of zero. Riley compares it to the likes of Fifth Avenue in New York City and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, Calif.

“People come to Charleston to shop on King Street,” Riley said.

Without Charleston Place and the subsequent commercial projects that followed, Riley said Charleston would not be an international tourism destination. It would not entertain James Beard award-winning chefs and have two-hour waits at most downtown restaurants on a Friday night.

It would not have had the clout to nurture a burgeoning tech sector in which startups garner venture capital and launch new apps from within century-old homes and former warehouses that have been converted into office spaces.

The city’s population has more than doubled to its current 127,000 residents, with about 35,000 of them living on the peninsula.

“Charleston Place became a magnet for people to come, and then gradually, adjacent buildings got redeveloped into retail,” Riley said. “Downtown became desirable again. ... Then citizens made it a lively place, an interesting place, a fun place. You want to go there. ... Then something wonderful happened. We started to attract young people back here.”

Becoming mayor

Stepping into Charleston City Council Chambers feels like stepping into a different century. The large room on the second floor of City Hall is filled with dark wood, heavy curtains and sturdy desks. A white marble plaque hangs on the wall with former mayors’ names etched into it.

Painted portraits of mayors past hang around the room. No one knew when Riley would retire, so his portrait was hung there in 2000.

During council meetings, residents squeeze past one another into old chairs that squeak with every move. Many crowd into standing space on the balcony. Council members sit in a semicircle at a table on the floor below.

Everyone waits his or her turn to talk to the mayor about a new development or city plan. When Riley finally responds in his quiet manner, everyone leans in, eager to catch every word.

Mayor Riley2
Joe Riley said he never planned to run for mayor but residents urged him to do so in 1975. He planned to serve for one term, but new projects compelled him to run nine more times. (Photos/city of Charleston)
Across the hall is the mayor’s office. During a recent interview, Riley sits at his large desk. He cannot take any questions until he finishes a postcard to his granddaughter who is away at camp. Behind him, light pours in through the window that overlooks Washington Square.

“I never thought of being mayor,” Riley says.

At age 32, Riley was a graduate of Bishop England High School, The Citadel and The University of South Carolina School of Law. He was an attorney and had served six years as a S.C. representative. Running a mayoral campaign was not part of his ambitions.

Riley said he decided to run at the urging of many residents. They wanted a leader to unite a divided city whose wounds were still raw as it emerged from decades of the Jim Crow-era segregation and discrimination that had defined the South.

When Riley decided to run in the 1975 election, only 12 years had passed since 12 black students entered all-white Charleston schools for the first time. South Carolina was the second-to-last state to fall in line with desegregating its public schools.

It had been slightly more than a decade since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been passed, outlawing discrimination based on race, religion, sex or national origin. The Confederate flag had been placed atop the S.C. State House 13 years prior to Riley’s election.

Charleston was a city in transition — a community deeply rooted in tradition trying to find its way in a changing society where black and white people now used the same restrooms and same doors to enter businesses. People had spent generations living next to one another but not really living together. The city wanted a leader to set the tone for how to navigate a newly desegregated society.

“The concern was that unless someone was elected that could be a bridge builder, building bridges especially between the white community and the African-American community ... it would have a polarizing effect on the city,” Riley said.

Riley’s platform included improving race relations, creating more parks throughout the city, establishing storefront police headquarters in peninsula neighborhoods to decrease crime, attracting shoppers and employers back to King Street and expanding the city’s summer job program.

“A major cause of crime is the idleness created by our inadequate recreational facilities and programs and our increasing unemployment,” Riley wrote in his platform statement, which ran in the Evening Post, now The Post and Courier, in 1974.

Riley won that election in 1975, and the nine consecutive elections since. After almost 20 years on the job, Riley ran for governor in 1994. He lost that election and served an additional 21 years as mayor.

He said he originally planned to be a one-term mayor. But with every new project he started in Charleston, he said he felt the desire to see it through — and every four years, constituents voted him back into office.

“I wanted to serve the citizens, and I wanted to be the bridge builder. I thought that I could bring people together and get things going, but I did not have an understanding of all the wonderful challenges and opportunities that the job would present,” Riley said. “Once I was well into the work ... it was clear that they (projects) weren’t capable of being addressed within a short, four-year period.”

The highs, the lows, the progress

Nearly every one of the major developments Riley pushed for caused a controversy over how Charleston should evolve and how public spaces should be used.

Many black residents have been frustrated with some of Riley’s redevelopment plans that have spurred gentrification on the peninsula. The S.C. Aquarium and the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge both involved demolishing public housing and displacing those residents.

Left: Riley kept residents and businesses up to date during Hurricane Hugo’s aftermath in 1989. (Photo/city of Charleston) Center: Riley (far right) stood with current and former S.C. leaders for the removal of the Confederate flag from Statehouse grounds in July. In 2000, Riley walked from Charleston to Columbia to demonstrate his view that the flag should be taken down. (Photo/Ashley Heffernan) Right: Riley said his hardest moment in office occurred in June when a gunman killed nine people at Emanuel AME Church. (Photo/Ryan Wilcox)

Left: Riley kept residents and businesses up to date during Hurricane Hugo’s aftermath in 1989. (Photo/city of Charleston)

Center: Riley (far right) stood with current and former S.C. leaders for the removal of the Confederate flag from Statehouse grounds in July. In 2000, Riley walked from Charleston to Columbia to demonstrate his view that the flag should be taken down. (Photo/Ashley Heffernan)

Right: Riley said his hardest moment in office occurred in June when a gunman killed nine people at Emanuel AME Church. (Photo/Ryan Wilcox)

As development moves across the peninsula today into the historically black East Side neighborhood, some residents are angry that new office spaces come fully staffed and new housing does not offer affordable rates.

Many Charlestonians also did not understand Riley’s desire to use valuable waterfront land for public spaces rather than lucrative commercial or residential developments.

When Charleston Place was underway, Riley said he remembers people telling him that it would ruin the city and that no one would want to live in or visit Charleston. He believed then, as he does now, that it was the key to transforming downtown Charleston. He said Charleston Place and Waterfront Park are two of his proudest accomplishments.

Many of his ongoing initiatives — finishing the Union Pier Terminal redevelopment for the cruise ship industry, completing the expansion of Interstate 526 and developing Cainhoy Plantation into a larger community on the Cainhoy peninsula — continue to draw residents’ ire and face legal battles from neighborhood, preservation and environmental groups.

“Even if, while you’re going through the process, some people might say: ‘Why do we need this? I don’t think this is good’ — if you have reasoned confidence that when it’s done, that people will treasure it, then you just stay the course,” Riley said. “And that’s what we did.”

As he prepares to leave office, Riley said he hopes other projects are finished.

He wants to see the $75 million International African American Museum built on the site near the S.C. Aquarium where hundreds of thousands of Africans first landed in the United States before being sold into slavery. Riley also said he wants to see West Ashley revitalized into a renewed retail and pedestrian corridor.

Over the past four decades as mayor, Riley has made progress toward his original campaign goals of creating new parks, redeveloping downtown and improving race relations.

The city has more than doubled the number of parks since he was elected. Downtown is a desirable place for many residents, tourists and employees. And Riley has taken a stand on several defining racial issues during his tenure, often as a minority voice among his peers at the time.

Riley appointed Charleston’s first black police chief, Reuben Greenberg, in 1982. The late Greenberg remained in that position until he retired in 2005.

Riley also has been vehemently against the Confederate flag’s presence at the S.C. Statehouse. In 2000, he led hundreds of people on a five-day march from Charleston to Columbia. Riley wanted the 120-mile walk to signify the importance of the flag’s removal from atop the state Capitol.

The flag was moved from the Statehouse dome that year and relocated to the Statehouse grounds, where it remained until July. It was removed in response to a white gunman killing nine black people in a shooting inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Calhoun Street on June 17.

Riley said the day “that hateful man killed nine beautiful people praying in their church” was the hardest day of his 40 years in office.

The killings spurred business leaders and legislators, including Riley and Gov. Nikki Haley, to urge the removal of the flag from Statehouse grounds. The man charged with murder and hate crimes in the killings, Dylann Roof, was previously photographed posing with the flag.

During rallies earlier this summer, Riley said: “It sends the wrong message. The grounds of the state Capitol belong to every citizen of South Carolina. It is quintessentially the most public place in our state. ... Take away Mr. Roof’s symbol, a misguided idea of racial superiority and bigotry. Take it away from him and all like him, and give the front of our state Capitol equally, fairly to every citizen of South Carolina.”

Riley remembers the pain of each tragedy that wracked Charleston while he was mayor: the killing of the Emanuel Nine, the loss of nine firefighters in the Sofa Super Store fire in 2007 and the damage from Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

He carries those tragedies with him, as well as the good moments, from which he says there are too many to choose.

Riley said he feels content when he sees people sitting on a swing at Waterfront Park, enjoying a baseball game at Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park or shopping and dining along King Street — because he remembers when downtown was bereft of activity when he took office. Today’s downtown reminds him more of the bustling scene of his childhood.

As he prepares to retire from office at age 72, Riley leaves behind a legacy of what he hopes is a better Charleston — a city that all residents can share in; one filled with more diversity, vibrancy and inclusiveness than when he first took office in December 1975.

“This is the question that you should have as a leader: Is what we’re doing right now responding to the hearts of the people so that when done, the citizens will say, ‘This is wonderful.’ ”

Reach staff writer Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119 or @lizsegrist on Twitter.

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