Sunday, March 6, 2011

Minneapolis Could Take Some Cues from Charleston, South Carolina


Smart Growth by Joseph Riley (Mayor - Charleston, SC) from Wildcat Student TV on Vimeo.
Post by the Hawthorne Hawkman, video and screen shot from source linked above.

Not too long ago, I added links on the left side of my blog in order to allow readers to see what other cities across the country are doing to revitalize their neighborhoods.  While I don't know if that feature has been used very often, the search for other best practices did spark one neighbor to send me the link above.  Be warned, the video is almost seventy-five minutes long, although the mayor of Charleston is engaging enough of a speaker to make it pretty entertaining.

Mayor Joseph Riley is a better speaker than I am a writer, especially when it comes to his own town.  But in case NXNS readers would rather spend just a few minutes reading a summary, that's after the jump...

Right off the bat, Riley says, "In city building there’s never any excuse to build or allow anything to be built that doesn’t add to the beauty of the community."  Now how many times have many of the NoMi bloggers railed against slumlords like Paul Koenig, Bashir Moghul, Mahmood Khan, Stephen Meldahl, or Keith Reitman, only to have a dissenting voice claim that we're somehow advocating that poor people shouldn't have a place to call home?  And every time that false notion has reared its ugly head, I've countered that low-income people deserve to live in quality housing just like the rest of us.

The most impressive aspect of Riley's low- and mixed-income housing developments is that he had them built or rehabbed to match the aesthetic appearance of historic housing in Charleston.  Too often public housing results in the concentration of poverty, but in this case the outward appeal of the buildings actually spurred private development in those neighborhoods.

Riley, a nine-term mayor who unfortunately probably couldn't be convinced at this point in his life to come and run the city of Minneapolis, doesn't hold back on his preservationist streak either.  "We worked very hard to keep the bulldozers out...we keep the bulldozers out because cities need memories."  Something tells me that if a house with the communal history that's been uncovered around the Sheltering Arms House were discovered in Charleston, we wouldn't have to argue with the city in order to save it.  The memories that are a part of the very fabric of the house at 2648 Emerson Ave N are just as important, perhaps more so, than its architectural appeal.

While we're on that topic, please watch at least the first 10-20 minutes of this video.  Take a look at the houses that were preserved in Charleston.  Most of those houses outwardly look like ones that our city officials would say need to be torn down immediately because they pose such a risk to houses or people nearby.  But Joseph Riley had a different take.

At the 13-minute mark, he tells a story of a house that was quite literally falling over towards the property next door.  Without having seen Riley's response, even I would have found demolition to be an unfortunately necessary step to protect the family that lived in the adjacent property.  The mayor thought outside of the box, and when city inspectors told him that the house could fall over and harm that family he said, "Well, not if we put them up in a Howard Johnson hotel for the summer while we do the work."

The light pole was vertical and the house itself is leaning that far, yet they STILL saved it.
Another time, city inspectors said, "Mr. Mayor, we need to tear down that house because it's falling into the street."  His response, "Well, we better close down the street while we fix it then."  I can just about guarantee the Pauline Fjelde house would still be standing if it were in Charleston.

The effect of preservation efforts like this was that $700,000 condos were built across the street in a low/moderate-income area.  This was apparently done without displacing poor people, as evidenced by the story Riley told of a political dinner he was at where a server came up to him and thanked him for his work.  "It used to be," she sad, "that when people asked me where I live, I was embarrassed to tell them.  Now I can't WAIT for people to ask me where I live because everyone knows how amazing the neighborhood is."

That sentiment is EXACTLY what NoMi revitalizers strive for.

The mayor also focused on turning around the downtown area, where one constituent said you could get spend a quarter and get either a bowl of chili, a tattoo, or a communicable disease.  But in order to turn around a struggling downtown core, Riley was once again unconventional.  For example, he told architects that he simply did not want to have a parking garage look like a parking garage in the midst of the other buildings in that area.  So he pushed them to build something that fit the building stock, it won AIA awards, and brought more and more private investment to the community.

At the 36-minute mark, Mayor Riley talks about the importance of the waterfront to the city's residents, bringing to mind proposed changes to the Mississippi waterfront in north Minneapolis.  "Every chance we get, we're increasing the public's access to the water's edge."  As these efforts drew more and more people to Charleston, they realized they'd have to coordinate tourism and other commercial efforts better.  In the span of several years, Charleston quickly went from getting roughly one million tourists and many complaints, to over four million tourists and virtually no complaints.

Riley remained so committed to the public's access to the waterfront that he won't even issue any permits for large commercial events to take place at some of the parks because he wants to protect the average person's ability to come and enjoy their amenities.  His city needs beauty, he said, because the human soul needs beauty.

Joseph Riley got to know a working-class janitor named Clarence, and Clarence would come down to the waterfront every morning to drink a cup of coffee because the area was just so beautiful.  Before some new developments could be commemorated, Clarence had a stroke.  He survived, but was in a wheelchair and couldn't move much at all.  Riley had him in the front row during the commemoration as a reminder of who he was representing as mayor.  For someone like Clarence, coming down to the waterfront to take in the beauty of his city might be about the only thing he's got.  That's who Mayor Riley was working for in Charleston and those are the kinds of people we ought to celebrate in north Minneapolis.

There was time for a handful of questions after the speech, and the most pertinent one queried about money.  Where did Riley get the funds to do all of these things?  His response brought back memories of a discussion that happened on the Johnny Northside blog about the renovation of the Garden of Gethsename Church.  I had been accused of being overly pollyannish for my belief that if you've got a solid plan that reflects your values, and you're committed to seeing it through, then finding the money is a secondary concern.  Joseph Riley said much the same.  "Money usually isn't a barrier to achieving important things."

1 comment:

  1. Great clip! How refreshing to see politicians who really get it!

    Compare that to our own CPED Minneapolis Heritage Preservation (HPC) Director who justifies using economic development funds to gut older communities and demo homes because "some of these homes have had copper thefts!" and a City Council who subsidizes re-muddling of our neighborhood aesthetics and integrity under the guise of energy and health programs.

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