Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Inside Story Behind The Charleston (S.C.) Waterfront Park

On the corner of Vendue Range and Concord Street in Charleston, South Carolina lay the north entrance to the Waterfront Park. Since the park was dedicated on May 11, 1990 and open for the public, the park has received near universal acclaim. Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., who oversaw its whole production from 1977 to 1990, called the Waterfront Park "this generation's gift to the future." In 2007, the park won the Landmark Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Type in "Charleston Waterfront Park" on a search engine, and you'll be hard-pressed to find aggregate reviews under 4 1/2 out of 5 stars. The park is simply that astounding.

But there's more to the park than twelve acres of natural landscape. It took a lot of politicking, and a failed attempt for a major airport hub, before the park was completed.

How do I know? My father was an elected official for the Charleston City Council during that time, and he rubbed shoulders with Mayor Riley to see this park through. What follows is his account on how one of Charleston's biggest tourist attractions came to be.

(Quick disclaimer: Some details are sketchy, particularly when it comes to the time of certain happenings, but I'm just going off what my father told me. He lived it, not me, and so I present everything to be true.)

In 1975, Joseph P. Riley, Jr. was elected to succeed Arthur B. Schirmer, Jr., who was serving as an interim mayor for the recently resigned J. Palmer Gaillard, Jr. It was during the mid- to late-1970s that the fashion district surrounding King Street today not only was non-existent, the district itself was an atrocious mess. So what Mayor Riley decided to do was to clean up that part of Charleston and auction off different locations on King Street to various companies. To fund this renovation, Mayor Riley requested, and was granted, $250,000 in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) money.

When these businesses saw how much of a golden opportunity it was to invest a spot on King Street, they bid eagerly at the drop of a hat. And the profit that the city of Charleston made from all these bids was huge.

How huge?

$27 million huge. That's right. $27,000,000 off of $250,000! That's an increase of 108 times it's original worth!

Now, you would think that Mayor Riley was a financial genius and everything else was all peaches and cream. But the story doesn't end here.

Shortly after netting $27 million, the city of Charleston got a notice from the U.S. government. As it turned out, a city can't claim any profits made using federal funds. And that meant one of two things for the city of Charleston:

1) Pay back the difference of $26,750,000 to the feds; or
2) Use that difference to fund what is known as "Streetscape"

"Streetscape" was the term used to either renovate or build upon existing property for the sake of improving its image. Since no one in the city of Charleston wanted, much less had, a fraction of the money to pay back the feds, Mayor Riley decided to use those funds to enhance Charleston's appearance. And while a new park along the Charleston Harbor was something to bat around, that wasn't Mayor Riley's primary goal.

He wanted a major airport hub, and it made perfect sense.

At the time, Charleston was battling Columbia, South Carolina and Charlotte, North Carolina to get this hub. With the number of big businesses coming in droves to Charleston, it was only a matter of time before they wanted a convenient mode of transportation lest they cut their ties. While I'm sure a few big executives loved their stay in Charleston, they understandably needed to get from A to B to C as quickly as possible, and a sizable airport provided that. Charleston, in particular, was catering to several high-tech companies because Mayor Riley envisioned that these companies would provide plenty of jobs for the lowcountry. (In hindsight, he was right about the technology boom.) However, both Charleston and Columbia were passed over in favor of Charlotte. Another later attempt was unsuccessful, with that hub going to the Raleigh-Durham area.

When Mayor Riley realized he wasn't going to get the hub that would bring in the jobs at the time, he decided to create jobs locally by turning Charleston into a major tourist attraction. After all, with over 300 years of history and some of the most influential men and events in the U.S. having been in Charleston, that seemed like an even greater idea. And so, Mayor Riley helped cultivate downtown Charleston into a city infatuated with itself, living in the past.

But only so much can be done just preserving the Battery, Rainbow Row, and anything else South of Broad. There needed to be new attractions. The main one Mayor Riley had in mind was, you guessed it, a park celebrating Charleston's coastal charm. He found his spot in a half mile strip adjacent to the Cooper River that stretched from the French Quarter into South of Broad and broke ground for the park in 1988. The park itself cost $13 million of HUD money to construct. When Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston on September 21, 1989, the category 4 hurricane caused roughly $1 million in damages to the park, but it stayed intact. And as I mentioned in the opening paragraph, the park was officially christened on May 11, 1990, just a week past it's pre-hurricane scheduled opening.

By now, you may be asking where my father was in all of this. Well, he was first elected as a city councilman in 1988 serving District 10, which consisted of the West Ashley region of Charleston (at the time). My father agreed with Mayor Riley to greenlight this project because my father likewise believed a new park would bring in a plethora of money. Because my father sat on the city council to approve the completion of this park, his name is forever etched in bronze on the plaque dedicating the park near the north entrance. (His is the third name on the right hand column.)

My father's hand at politics was short lived. Depending on whom you ask, his last year on the city council was either 1990 or 1992. And in the same manner, one of two things influenced him to step down. The first, as I mentioned earlier, was Hurricane Hugo. Before Hugo hit, all my father really did as a city councilman was meet with the rest of the committee every other Tuesday to discuss local political issues. After the hurricane passed Charleston, the place looked like a war zone. I think my father knew what he was getting into when he was an elected official, but no one is prepared for the devastation courtesy of a category 4 hurricane. Hugo tested his limitations, and my father wanted no more after that term. The second reason is me. I was born in 1991, and once my father became a dad, I believe he wisely decided to shift his priorities from politics to parenthood. Again, it depends on who you ask.

And there you have it. Inside information, and a permanent fixture in Charleston's history, behind one of the city's most popular tourist attractions. You're welcome.

As a bonus... I'm including several more pictures I took of the Waterfront Park for y'all to enjoy! If you haven't gone, please do! (Pssst, don't forget to check out the plaque, too!)

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