Mayor Riley honored for national design leadership

Mayor Joe Riley cuts the ribbon after Charleston City Hall’s 2007 renovation was completed. Riley was honored Thursday for his design and preservation influence in Charleston and across the country.

Five years ago, the American Architectural Foundation named an award after Charleston Mayor Joe Riley to recognize mayors committed to excellence in urban design. On Thursday night, the foundation gave Riley its National Medal for Design Leadership for his “unequaled” work.

The award was presented at the foundation’s 26th annual Accent on Architecture Gala in Washington D.C., and it recognizes the outgoing mayor’s 40 years of national leadership in urban design and historic preservation.

“The city should be a place where everybody’s heart can sing,” Riley said during a brief video shown during the award ceremony. The video features dozens of Charleston parks, buildings and public spaces either created or restored during the mayor’s time in office.

Some of his biggest successes have been revitalizing King Street, building Waterfront Park, restoring major civic buildings and strengthening preservation policies. He also supported a scattered site public housing plan that won the highest design award from the American Institute of Architects.

While many have understood Riley’s leading role in shaping Charleston, he also has played an influential, though less visible, role in improving downtowns across the country.

Riley was among the founders and strongest supporters of The Mayors Institute on City Design, a nonprofit initiative backed by the foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Since 1986, the institute has hosted more than 500 mayors from all 50 states to take a short crash-course in urban design and learn from assorted experts about how to improve their cities. Riley said many mayors still approach him to share their story about how the course improved their city.

Foundation President and CEO Ron Bogle said Riley has used architecture and design as tools to transform Charleston and drive powerful economic, social and cultural changes.

“The Mayor’s passion for architecture, urban design and historic preservation have elevated him to a position of extraordinary national leadership,” Bogle said. “And as founder of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, Mayor Riley has created an institution that will continue to influence the quality of design in American cities. Simply stated, his influence on the design of American cities is unequaled.”

Riley said Friday he was proud to represent the city when receiving the award, and he noted it reflects the efforts of many people here. “I didn’t do anything by myself alone,” he said.

Many have joked that Riley is a frustrated architect, and his interest in city building details ranging from paint colors to signage to lighting is well known. He often has talked often about the influence a mayor can have on the design of his or her city.

“Mayors work very hard every day on budgetary matters and political matters ... that 25 years from now will not be remembered,” Riley said in the video, “but as mayors, the decisions we make about the design and development of our city will be with our city 25, 50 or 100 years from now. ... It is our opportunity and responsibility to make sure those decisions achieve excellence.”

Ray Huff, director of the Clemson Architecture Center in Charleston, said Riley has shown how a thoughtful mayor’s work can pay off by making a more livable city.

“His greatest legacy is Charleston,” Huff said, “but beyond that, what Mayor Riley has been able to demonstrate is that people in decision-making positions like his can have a much broader and enlightened point of view in what makes a great city — and it isn’t always about increasing the tax base.”

Riley also has received the 2009 National Medal of the Arts, the 2004 Olmsted Medal from the American Society of Landscape Architects and the inaugural J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development from the Urban Land Institute in 2000. In 1994, he won the Thomas Jefferson Award from the American Institute of Architects for Public Architecture.

Although he is leaving office, Riley will remain a national leader in this arena. He said he plans to stay involved with the Mayors Institute on City Design, and President Barack Obama recently appointed him to a three-year term on the national Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.