Everybody knew Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg had a tough act to follow when he succeeded former Mayor Joe Riley, who had been in office for 40 years. One year in, Tecklenburg is mostly pleased with how it’s going.
“That it reasonably went well I think says a lot about the city itself and our city staff, and hopefully my ability to lead the charge to keep Charleston moving in a good direction,” he said.
As the first anniversary of his inauguration approaches, Tecklenburg said he has had some successes, and City Council members and residents seem to agree. He was elected on a promise to renew the city’s focus on residents’ quality of life, particularly in West Ashley, and many of those efforts have begun to bear fruit.
But it wasn’t always easy, and not all of his initiatives were successful. Two separate attempts to rein in hotel developments, for instance, failed to get past City Council this year. Tecklenburg and several council members agreed there are still some communication kinks they need to work out as they head into the next year.
“There’s not a state of perfection. It’s a process,” Tecklenburg said. “Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Charleston.”
A suburban focus
Tecklenburg sat last week at the head of the long conference table he had moved into the Mayor’s Office shortly after he was sworn in. He prefers to sit there for meetings, rather than behind his large, historic desk in front of City Hall's Palladian window.
Not only a décor change, it's a symbol of Tecklenburg’s round-table style of leadership, an approach that he believes has helped him work with other governments and residents toward his top goals, particularly the efforts to revitalize West Ashley.
The city’s largest suburb is riddled with traffic, outdated shopping centers and a relative lack of a cohesive community. Riley started the economic redevelopment project during his last years in office, but Tecklenburg elevated it to a top priority in 2016.
Charleston County and the Charleston County School District worked with the city in November to create a new West Ashley tax district that will divert some property tax revenue in the area to pay for improvements over the next 25 years.
Also, Tecklenburg saw a signature road project for the area – the Interstate 526 extension – die in May but come back to life last month. He currently is helping the county with a plan to cover the additional $350 million needed to extend Interstate 526 across James and Johns islands – which it will present to the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank board in March in order to revive the $725 million project.
“Dealing with the Mark Clark extension has been frustrating, and it’s still a work in progress,” Tecklenburg said. “It’s alive, and in much better shape than it was a year ago, so I’m encouraged.”
The mayor also worked with the county to try to advance other road projects, such as improving Folly Road on James Island, and widening Maybank Highway to three lanes between the Stono River and River Road.
The mayor also said there’s also been a “new era of cooperation” between the city and the Town of James Island, a relationship that had been characterized by spats over jurisdiction and new developments. The city even ceded a small portion of property back to the town for its new Town Hall.
“I’ve always had the attitude – be it James Island, Johns Island, West Ashley, all these areas of the city where you have multiple jurisdictions – that it’s just better to get along than to be fussing and suing each other,” he said.
From tent city to a tall tower
On the peninsula, Tecklenburg led the charge a month after taking office to clear the homeless encampment known as "Tent City" under the Interstate 26 overpass. After most residents were relocated to shelters or more permanent housing, Tecklenburg helped revive a regional effort to address homelessness in general.
The new Mayors’ Council on Homelessness and Affordable Housing includes Mount Pleasant Mayor Linda Page and North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, as well as representatives of those municipalities.
“Tent City was just a subset of the issue of homelessness… just because the tents are gone doesn’t mean homelessness is gone,” Tecklenburg said. “There’s a lot more to come on that topic in the coming year.”
He also played an important role in bringing compromise to the Sergeant Jasper deal, one of the most contentious redevelopment projects in the city’s history.
After a Circuit Judge ruled the city's Board of Architectural Review erred by rejecting a proposed development on the site, Tecklenburg worked out a compromise that got rid of that legal ruling threatening the BAR's powers and that also promised a small park on part of The Beach Company's land. But the deal riled some because it paved the way for a new building, as tall and even larger than the existing 14-story apartment building.
City Councilman Dean Riegel said that sticky Jasper situation, which Tecklenburg inherited when he took office in 2016, illustrated the mayor’s penchant for teamwork.
“He’s a person that can bring both sides together,” he said.
But Tecklenburg also has paid attention to smaller things that don't make headlines, such as a request from Ben D’Allesandro, who lives downtown with his family and owns D’Allesandro’s Pizza in Elliotborough. As an advocate for pedestrian safety in the city, D’Allesandro said he told the mayor he wanted to see a crosswalk put in on Rutledge Avenue near Grove Street.
“And you know what? There’s one at Simmons and Rutledge now. I don’t know if I had anything to do with that, but I think that’s a fantastic place for a crosswalk,” he said. “I think he’s doing a fantastic job.”
Can they get along?
While the mayor has been a successful collaborator with many this year, he has had his challenges working with City Council.
The 12-member body shot down his early proposal for a temporary moratorium on new hotel projects. Months later, council members showed no interest in heeding the planning department’s recommendation to adopt a new overlay zone that would prevent hotels from displacing other uses.
Tecklenburg said he has a new plan to curb hotel developments, which will be introduced to City Council in early 2017.
Other spats at City Council meetings sprouted over seemingly small stuff, such as routine budget measures and the mayor’s appointments to boards and commissions. Recently, a proposed $498,000 contract to hire Dover Kohl to do the West Ashley Master Plan failed 9-4 over a disagreement about how much money the city had budgeted for it.
Councilman Bill Moody, who has questioned many of Tecklenburg’s proposals and voted against the Dover Kohl contract, said the mayor needs to do a better job of assessing where council members stand on certain issues before putting them on the agenda.
“I just can’t imagine Joe Riley losing a vote 9-4, so there needs to be more discussion as to where we are and see if we can’t get the agreement where it needs to be before we get out into the public domain,” he said.
Reigel agreed: “Learn how to count the votes. ... Joe always called me before important votes and would ask me for my support and explain why, and other times I would say, ‘I can’t support this vote and here is why.’”
Councilman James Lewis said many of his fellow council members are just giving Tecklenburg “a tough time.”
“I think Council just needs to work with him on this stuff,” he said, “He’s doing his best.”
Tecklenburg meets with individual council members monthly to discuss any concerns they might have, but the mayor said his mistake was that he didn’t see many of those curve balls coming.
“Some of the things that have been brought up, I wasn’t aware they were going to be such a big deal,” he said.
Virginia Bush, president of the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, criticized City Council for blocking what she saw as needed reforms.
“The Mayor’s campaign promises for livability and quality of life collided immediately with a power struggle led by a bloc of council members who promote massive development despite its negative effects on traffic, parking, flooding and historic ambiance,” she said.
Tecklenburg said he’s learned lessons from the past year that he'll apply in the next.
“I’ll continue and strive to do an even better job at communicating with my council members when issues are coming forward,” he said. “I think everybody has the same good intentions about the goal of improving our citizens' quality of life. We’ve just gotten into the nuance a couple of times about how best to get it done.”