The Public Realm

By Hannah Wallace January 31, 2006

When Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. spoke at the Downtown Partnership's annual banquet a few months ago, it was to a packed ballroom of hundreds of businesspeople at the Hyatt Sarasota. The genteel Riley, born and raised in Charleston, has been the mayor of this historic city of 96,000 people on the South Carolina coast since 1975, and in his thicker-than-molasses Southern drawl he described the metamorphosis of his hometown from a declining city where strip centers had replaced centuries-old antebellum buildings to a place where history is revered and preserved, and every structure and detail-down to the gravel on park paths&#!51;is planned with the public in mind. He showed slides as he talked: rickety public housing replaced with charming two-story dwellings with balconies and front porches, all painted in pastels; vacant and overgrown corner lots becoming the sites of thriving businesses; a rusty industrial waterfront transformed into the elegant Waterfront Park, a huge draw for citizens and tourists alike.

Listening to Riley, whose knowledge of urban planning was matched by his disarming humor and poetic eloquence, many in the audience walked away eager to institute an elected mayor in Sarasota. Here was visible evidence of the power of one leader with a strong vision and the tenacity to make things happen. When Riley heard from his planning department that a building or street improvement wasn't "doable," he simply told planners to try again. Once, when he was told a narrow street wouldn't allow for first-floor retail because trucks wouldn't be able to park and unload, he told planners that the city wasn't designed so a beer truck could double park; it was designed so that a mother could walk down a street holding her child's hand and feel safe.

Riley's charisma won the audience over. "It's blatantly obvious, and 99 percent of the people there had the same kind of reaction, how beneficial it is to have a leader who can get things done in the city," said Ian Black, a Sarasota real estate broker, the new chair of the Downtown Partnership and a longtime proponent of an elected mayor.

It may be time for Sarasota to leave the council form of government behind and take a chance on an elected mayor (even though most cities our size do have a council form of government). But Riley's message was about more than the power of an elected mayor. His real message was that cities should be places of equality and beauty, and that every structure built should keep those goals in mind.

Riley talked about the importance of having a vision and adhering to a plan, despite resistance and naysayers. He urged the audience to make sure the waterfront is preserved for the public. He called for historic preservation, stressing that only through the past can citizens leave permanent legacies; and that is why our buildings of the future must be just as beautiful and symbolic. Above all, a city must offer places of repose, beauty and a sense of belonging for every citizen. Not everyone in the city has the means to get away, he reminded us, and he gave an example of an impoverished man in a wheelchair who would never be able to travel outside the city. This man painstakingly travels to Charleston's Waterfront Park every day to find the beauty, tranquility and community that made him whole.

Whether his Sarasota audience agreed with everything Riley said or not, there was no denying the palpable energy he brought to our dialogue about what it will take to make Sarasota a truly great city. Kudos to the Downtown Partnership for starting the conversation.

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