Former Mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, Joseph Riley presents to the ULI luncheon.
Joe Riley, former Mayor of Charleston, shares his experiences with members of the Urban Land Institute and guests. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Should cities be designed for mothers walking hand-in-hand with their children or for beer delivery trucks and buses?

For Joe Riley, who was mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, for 40 years, the answer is obvious.

“I love beer,” Riley said Tuesday to a packed house at the Pearl Stable, but cities should focus on people. He pointed to a photo of a “human-scale” urban street with shop windows. “[Here], the people are in charge.”

Riley was 32 when he was first elected mayor in 1975. After serving 10 terms, one of the longest tenures for any U.S. mayor, he stepped down in early 2016.

Riley, now 75, told San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg during the Urban Land Institute luncheon Tuesday to prioritize people and beauty as he embarks on his relatively short tenure (mayors and City Council members in San Antonio are limited to four two-year terms).

Riley established Charleston’s Homeownership Initiative in 2000 and has been praised as an affordable housing and infill development champion for the city. Under his tenure, he also emphasized the importance of public space and parks, buying up waterfront property to connect public assets.

“The things that we value most as a community are things that we own together,” Nirenberg said, paraphrasing Riley in agreement.

Thoughtful redevelopment and equity are Nirenberg’s top priorities in urban design, he said, and the City affirmed its commitment to prioritizing people when in July 2017 it became one of at least 70 Compassionate Cities worldwide during his first Council meeting as mayor.

The 2018 City budget took “a huge leap” in the direction of “considering compassion and equity as part of decision making,” he added.

San Antonio and Charleston are two very different cities in terms of economies, demographics, and size; Charleston’s estimated population in July 2016 was 134,000, compared to San Antonio’s nearly 1.5 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But there are problems that most cities must tackle, including affordable housing. Nirenberg’s Housing Policy Task Force is expected to deliver recommendations in June, according to sources close to the process.

Rivard Report Editor and Chief Beth Frerking moderates a panel with Mayor Ron Nirenberg and 40-year mayor of Charleston South Carolina Joseph Riley (right).
Rivard Report Editor-in-Chief Beth Frerking moderates a panel with San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg (center) and Joe Riley, former mayor of Charleston, South Carolina. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Riley said it was important to find, build, or renovate “dignified” housing for the poor. Rather than large housing projects, he often found ways to implement affordable housing in vacant lots or dilapidated historic homes.

“There is no excuse under any circumstance to build anything [in a city] that doesn’t add to its beauty,” Riley said.

Of course he ran into problems with gentrification and nimbyism (“not in my backyard”), Riley said. “No one says, ‘Hey, honey, I hope we can get some public housing next to us.’”

But he found that when City officials and developers “respect people’s feelings … never act like you think you’re smarter than somebody …  [and] persist,” neighborhoods will begin to welcome development – especially if it’s built to higher design standards.

Funding models and opportunities for cities vary from state to state. The City of San Antonio can’t directly fund affordable housing, but in 2017 voters approved a $20 million housing bond to purchase and prepare land for redevelopment to sell to nonprofit or for-profit developers.

“Mayors are in sales,” Riley said, and building political support is all about reaching out to people and letting them know your priorities and reasoning.

Riley recalled an instance several years ago where men carrying pistols on their hips approached him while he was purchasing alcohol at a liquor store. Nervous and unsure what to expect, he said the men simply wanted to talk about infrastructure projects near their homes. An intersection had been improved near one man’s house, and he thanked the then-mayor for it.

“They wanted to talk to the mayor about beauty,” he said, emphasizing the importance of listening.

Charleston has what is called a mayor-council or “strong mayor” form of government – which places the mayor in a position of overseeing the Council and the day-to-day operations of the city. In San Antonio’s council-manager form of government, the city manager takes on more daily operation responsibilities.

“First of all, [Nirenberg] looks stronger than me,” Riley quipped.

When Beth Frerking, Rivard Report editor-in-chief and the event’s moderator, tasked Nirenberg with asking the veteran mayor questions, Nirenberg inquired about Riley’s opinion on strengths and weaknesses of the two forms of local government.

“They both are very good systems,” Riley said. In the mayor-council form, the mayor gets to be “closer” to the execution of policies and inner workings of fiscal challenges, he said,  but in the council-manager form, the mayor can spend more time on policy creation.

What really aided him in getting things done throughout his tenure was, of course, not having a term limit, he said, and not having to campaign every other year. Charleston mayors serve for four years at a time.

“Practically speaking, here the mayor is always running for re-election,” said David Adelman, a real estate developer and chair of the local chapter of the Urban Land Institute.

The City’s Charter Review Commission is considering recommendations on lengthening terms from two to four years, but those charter changes might be delayed if the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association’s petitions make it on the ballot. Nirenberg reiterated his opposition to those petitions on Tuesday.

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at