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Charleston Mayor Joe Riley: ‘You can never stop listening’

Tim Keane Joe Riley

Atlanta Planning Commissioner Tim Keane with former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley at ULI Atlanta event in 2018 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

By Maria Saporta

A fascinating conversation between two public servants took place last week – thanks to ULI Atlanta. It was a conversation that should become a guiding platform for how Atlanta can evolve into a next generation city.

The conversation took place between former Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley Jr. – who has been described as the best mayor in the country, serving his city for 40 years; and Atlanta Planning Commissioner Tim Keane, who worked for Riley for eight years before coming to Atlanta.

Tim Keane Joe Riley

Atlanta Planning Commissioner Tim Keane with former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Keane introduced Riley by saying that in 1999, “one of my first experiences with the mayor was when he decided to take a walk from Charleston to Columbia (the state capital) – about 100 miles – to protest the Confederate symbol on the state flag.”

There, Keane heard Riley introduced by a pastor as “the mayor of South Carolina.” A few years later, he heard Vice President Joe Biden describe Riley as “America’s Mayor.”

Without question, Riley’s leadership in Charleston over four decades has become one of the nation’s best examples of good governance and enlightened city planning.

Here are a few gems from the ULI-Atlanta program held on Sept. 25 at Piedmont Park’s Magnolia Hall.

Describing Charleston as an old American city built before the automobile and the elevator, Riley showed a photo of the now-demolished 1860 Charleston Hotel. It was replaced with an ugly motor lodge – a depiction of what a city should not do.

Tim Keane Joe Riley

Atlanta Planning Commissioner Tim Keane with former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley at ULI Atlanta event (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Riley, elected in 1975, was an advocate for affordable housing long before it was cool. With a desire to build beautiful, affordable housing, Riley started working in the poorest sections of the city – seeking to restore dilapidated buildings to their former glory while providing housing for all incomes of people.

“We wanted developers to not be allowed to build something that did not add to the beauty of the city,” said Riley, showing before and after photos of residential developments that preserved the history. “Every time you do this, you save a memory.”

As a public servant, it was important for the mayor to be patient – restore a corner house and fix a neighborhood block-by-block – working with neighborhoods all along the way.

But the revival of downtown Charleston was one of his greatest successes.

“When I was growing up King Street was the shopping street,” Riley said. “When I was elected, our downtown was almost gone. The Saturday before Christmas, there was no one there. We worked to restore the downtown. It’s the public realm. We worked on old buildings and one by one, we saved them.”

Charleston, S.C.

Charleston, S.C. is known for appreciating historic preservation, a high quality of life, and promoting a pedestrian-friendly downtown (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Riley had a big challenge in the heart of downtown – a large empty block that begged to be redeveloped. The end result was a development that paid attention to all the details – hiding the parking, respecting the street life and the scale of other adjacent buildings and making sure there were public spaces that invited people.

“We put the humans in charge,” said Riley, who also described how they developed a waterfront park – which took 13 years – and went to extra lengths to preserve the city’s trees. “All these things take a long time. We worked hard to make our city beautiful for everyone.”

Riley did have the luxury of time – something Atlanta mayors do not have because they are limited to two consecutive terms.

So how can Atlanta replicate the success that Charleston has enjoyed when it comes to designing our city in the coming decades?

Riley offered suggestions: celebrate the places where the right development happens; understand there’s pressure on the mayor to produce quick fixes; don’t be in a rush; develop strategic plans; develop a 50-year vision; and “have people in positions in Atlanta who have the ability to understand the continuity” of the vision.

Lo and behold, we can do this.


Charleston, S.C. – a classic Southern city that is ready to embrace the future (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Last year, under Keane’s leadership and strong citizen input, the planning department released the Atlanta City Design Project – a document that guides the city in how it should develop going forward based on five core values based on the “beloved community” that includes protecting nature, ensures equity, provides opportunities for people, invites new residents and updates our transportation network.

If the City of Atlanta – from Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, the Atlanta City Council, every city department to the citizens of Atlanta – fully embraces and adopts this vision, we will have taken a critical first step to realizing the city that we want to become.

The ULI program also reminded us that leadership qualities are not just about substance, but also style.

Keane recalled getting a 7 a.m. Friday phone call from Riley who only had a few months left in office. At the time, Keane already was packing his bags to come to Atlanta.

City design map

A close up of the watercolor map of Atlanta – without interstates (Special: Atlanta City Design)

Riley told Keane he was going to a neighborhood council meeting, and he wanted the latest update on issues impacting that community.

“It’s your last year in office. Why are you still going to these meetings at 7 a.m. on a Friday morning?” Keane asked Riley.

“You can never stop listening,” Riley responded.

A mayor is an elected public servant. Riley said it was important for elected leaders to be humble and never forget that they work for the residents of the communities they serve.

“I learned everything I know about public service from Mayor Riley,” Keane said.

Atlantans can learn a great deal from both Mayor Riley and Tim Keane. We can never stop listening.


Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.


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1 Comment

  1. Nancy Bush October 14, 2018 7:49 pm

    Yes, these are all lovely sentiments and I greatly admire Mayor Riley’s long record of service…But until ATL can elect politicians who are not corrupt and do not leave a legacy of unpaid bills and incomplete (or vanity) projects, ATL will stay mired in strategic limbo…And we do not yet seem to have an electorate in the city that recognizes or rewards good results…Report


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