What Makes a City Great

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Anyone who’s driven through downtown Sarasota lately or seen the plans for even bigger new buildings can tell that our city is at a crossroads. Is our small downtown going to be able to maintain its famous charm as it becomes more urban, or will our sunny streets turn to shady canyons ringed by mountainous […]


Anyone who’s driven through downtown Sarasota lately or seen the plans for even bigger new buildings can tell that our city is at a crossroads. Is our small downtown going to be able to maintain its famous charm as it becomes more urban, or will our sunny streets turn to shady canyons ringed by mountainous structures, a chillingly compressed version of Anywhere, USA, that will send tourists looking for a more appealing place to visit?

What will happen to areas like Burns Court, where one- and two-story buildings, some of them historic, create a refreshing visual oasis with an only-in-Sarasota flavor that draws shoppers, diners and delighted tourists? Will enough long-term residents occupy all those downtown condominiums to ensure that exciting new shops and services can succeed, or will those apartments sit empty much of the year, with their owners arriving only for holidays? And perhaps most important of all, will the new downtown provide pleasures and places for all Sarasota residents rather than the rarified few who can afford the escalating price of downtown real estate?

One city in America came to a similar crossroads and figured out the route to success, and it’s a city that is strikingly similar to Sarasota. Thirty years ago, Charleston, S.C., a waterfront Southern town with a history of arts and culture, faced declining tourism and a decaying downtown. But under the inspired leadership of Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., who was first elected in 1975 and is now in his eighth term, Charleston has become one of the most vibrant small cities in the country, a place that values its past as well as its future. It attracts some 4 million tourists a year to its thoroughly revitalized historic district and a hugely successful music festival, Spoleto USA. In its busy downtown, businesses thrive and residents of every income level enjoy its beautiful waterfront park.

At the Sarasota Downtown Partnership’s annual dinner in December, Riley ignited the crowd as he described his city’s transformation.

"The one person in this whole country, if you said to me ‘urban revitalization’ and [asked me to] put a name to it, I’d say Joe Riley," says Tony Souza, executive director of the Downtown Partnership. Souza points to Riley’s ability to bring to downtown Charleston such big-time retailers as Saks Fifth Avenue and Urban Outfitters "in such a way that you don’t think of downtown as a mall, but a downtown that happens to have a wonderful mix of retail you want to get to."

Among Riley’s accomplishments is his creative approach to building attractive, affordable public housing in infill sites around the city. In a speech to the Tulsa, Okla. Foundation for Architecture a few years ago, Riley said that public housing projects "have failed. They ignore every accumulated lesson of Western civilization for the last 750 years about building cities. They ignore the neighborhood, they ignore the street, they ignore individuality. They put people in a complex and visibly stamp on them, ‘I am poor. This isn’t a good place.’ They are dismal failures, and we’re not going to build them anymore."

Many local business leaders who heard Riley speak came away enamored by one charismatic leader’s to execute a vision and were enthusiastic about electing a similar "strong mayor" in Sarasota. (Under the current system, city commissioners annually rotate the largely ceremonial office of mayor.) But whether or not Sarasota adopts the strong-mayor form of government-and manages to fill the office with a visionary like Riley-we can learn from the kind of bold, inclusive civic planning that has made Charleston such a success.

A lawyer who studied political science, history and English as an undergraduate, Riley speaks poetically and with great feeling about what makes a city great. We asked him to share some lessons he’s learned in Charleston.

Downtowns must welcome people from every sector of the community. "A healthy downtown is one that is busy, and a busy downtown is busy because human beings are using it with a sense of ownership. It’s the marketplace; it belongs to everyone-the richest, the poorest, the youngest, the oldest, the resident, the visitor. It’s the common ground. We need to have things we own together and we share together; that’s just good human experience. When downtowns lose their energy or attractiveness or safety, then people leave. When we see the variety of our community or society [intersecting in a busy downtown], it’s reinforcing, it makes you happier; you are in a context of your fellow humanity. It’s essential to a healthy, successful place."

Cities must be beautiful, and government must resist ugly development-including its own. "Beauty is a basic human need; there is something that makes us feel better when we see something beautiful. That’s how it ought to be in a city. The goal of cities is to give our citizens a surround that is nourishing, inspiring, uplifting, soothing, safe, optimistic, hopeful. There is never an excuse for anyone, but particularly a government, to ever build anything in a city that doesn’t add to the beauty of the community.

"There isn’t one definition of beauty; it is subjective. But if you’re sweating the details, then you’ve made it as beautiful as you can. The important thing is, I believe, that you aspire to make it beautiful-that is your goal, as opposed to saying, ‘It really doesn’t matter; it’s OK if it’s not; it’s just a parking garage.’"

Cities must respect their past by preserving historic buildings and flavor. "We need memories because they put what we want to be in a context. They make us better understand ourselves, where we are or where we’ve been, or what we have. The reason we save buildings is because cities need memories, too-having a piece of the past connects you to that past, then connects you to the future. It shows you’re not temporary and you’re not in a temporary place-you’re in a permanent place. The more opportunity you have to think about a city’s future, the better."

Hard as it is, cities need to go to great lengths to ensure that workers can find attractive, affordable housing. "That’s a very serious problem and a great challenge in America, so I wouldn’t want anybody to think we’ve solved that problem, but we’re working on it. One of our commitments is you have to make it handsome. We’re doing a range of affordable housing. Yesterday I rode by a site where we’re doing affordable housing with the housing authority. We’ve put it in an old area that was once housing for the elderly. It’s going to blend in with the older buildings, and it’s going to be so pretty. I’m excited. When our citizens see these going up, they’re going to say, ‘Boy, these are good looking.’"

Public access to the waterfront is essential. "Most cities are on water of some sort for obvious reasons. The water’s edge is a very beautiful place; it’s soothing, it has colors and light and things to see on it, whether it’s the bird life or boats or reflections. If it’s one of the nicest places in a city, and if you give citizens access to it in their own town, you’re giving them ownership of something that’s very special.

"The great cities in the world to me are those that seek to maximize the average citizen’s access to public places. Someone wrote that in a city you want your citizens not to dream of a place they’d like to be, but be in a place that inspires them to dream. And the water does that.

"One morning I was jogging by [Charleston's Waterfront Park] and saw Clarence Hopkins. He’s an epileptic who frequently has had seizures on the street. People know him and help him. He rode a bicycle, swept up in front of a filling station, shined shoes. Lived with his mother. He told me, ‘I go down [to the park] every day. It’s so beautiful. I really like it in the mornings when the sun’s coming up and those big ships are coming in.’

"Clarence Hopkins has never left Charleston and he never will. If he is to find beauty in his life, the only place he has to find it is in his city. If we harm our cities, we can leave. We can go on vacation, send the kids to summer camp, move out. But the Clarence Hopkins can’t."

Cities need to have a downtown plan and then enforce it. "Charleston actually benefited from one of our preservation organizations back in the ’70s [that undertook] a planning process to look at our height limits. We adopted that. The good news was there wasn’t a boom economy back then. There just wasn’t the pressure. A couple of times when we didn’t have the plan yet for a certain area, but we felt [a proposed development] was wrong, an outcry from the community stopped things from going forward. In a couple of instances we [the city] bought the property. Now we have a rationale; we’re not just scratching our heads.

"There has to be a vision. It’s hard to win [battles with developers] on a case-by-case basis. You’ve got to do the plan that says in this part of the city-whatever it is-this is the scale we want. If you don’t have that plan down, then it’s hard for me to tell you I don’t think you ought to build a 15-story building. Each part of our city has a different height requirement: the taller buildings-90 to 100 feet-are in the central business district. In some places you can go up 80 feet, some 72 feet, some 55 feet, some 50 feet, some 35 feet. It’s thoughtful; it’s based on the size of the historic buildings and what is [already] there on the street. Most cities really need six five-story buildings more than they need one 30-story building. Because most downtowns have places that could use those six pieces of energy, rather than one that so often creates a big-piece structure."

If you want tourism and corporate relocations, you must make your city attractive and livable. You’re giving away your future prosperity if you approve ugly development or fail to protect what people love about you. "Tourism not only creates jobs and a tax base but it helps enliven streets and sidewalks and shops, which locals then use. Also, we have increasingly become a country where more and more people make a decision on where they live based on where they want to live, not where they have to live. Corporations do that, too, because of the great mobility we have electronically and otherwise. When you make a city beautiful and livable, you make it a more desirable place to live, and you attract new businesses and new employees."