When Joseph P. Riley Jr. was elected mayor in 1975, the nation was in a deep recession and the nation’s cities were particularly suffering, mired in urban decay and rising crime. New York City nearly declared bankruptcy that same year. Middle-class families — white families in particular — had fled cities for the suburbs during the tumultuous 1960s. The Charleston peninsula’s population plunged by 29 percent in that single decade and continued falling until 2010. The city responded by annexing suburban and rural areas.
1976: James Island voters, and some in West Ashley’s St. Andrews Public Service District, soundly reject a referendum asking them to annex into the city. Charleston spends the next 39 years annexing parts of those areas, bit by bit.
1977: Spoleto Festival USA debuts in Charleston. The arts festival will play a key role in Charleston’s emergence as an international tourism destination. Riley announces plans, which prove controversial enough to generate death threats against the mayor, to attract a large hotel and convention center at the corner of King and Market streets.
1979: The city annexes 2,800 acres in West Ashley, including the Shadowmoss community.
Riley’s efforts to revive Charleston’s urban center are attracting tourists, but also raising the ire of some downtown residents opposed to more tourism and its trappings, such as moped rentals and carriage tours. In the suburbs, some residents are growing concerned about the city’s expansion, and attempt to form towns of their own on James Island and Johns Island.
1980: Charleston annexes 1,800 acres of James Island, and 253 acres in West Ashley that includes the new Citadel Mall.
1983: After residents on Johns and James islands express interest in forming new towns, Charleston annexes 2,100 acres on those islands. Citing the number of increasing visitors and tourism vehicles, City Council adopts its first Tourism Management Ordinance.
1984: A city committee endorses Riley’s plan for an aquarium on the peninsula’s eastern waterfront.
The mid- to late 1980s were a transformative period for the Charleston peninsula. The Charleston Place hotel and retail complex, championed by Riley and supported by federal loans, opened in 1986, spurring the redevelopment of lower King Street. Enrollment at the College of Charleston, which hovered around 5,300 students from 1975 through 1985, began a steep rise that would see the number of students double by 1993, with large effect on the peninsula’s demographics and real estate market. And in late 1989 the Charleston area was struck by Hurricane Hugo, the Lowcounty’s worst natural disaster of the 20th Century.
1986: Following years of controversy and several court battles with preservationists, Charleston Place opens Sept. 2, 1986. The Omni at Charleston Place, a 440-room luxury hotel, conference center and retail hub opens on the formerly blighted block bounded by King, Market, Meeting and Hasell Streets, a major milestone in King Street’s redevelopment.
1988: Groundbreaking for Waterfront Park, a new public park built on the Charleston peninsula where rotted wharves used to sit. Kiawah Island incorporates, partly out of fear that Charleston might annex the island.
1989: Category 4 Hurricane Hugo hits in September, leaving a path of destruction that will reshape the area. The hurricane kills 13 South Carolina residents and 36 elsewhere. Tens of thousands are left homeless and half the state is without electrical power.
The devastation of Hurricane Hugo in 1989 was followed by a surge in construction. Insurance payments and federal funds flowed to the Charleston area, even as the nation slipped into the 1990-91 recession. The city’s outward expansion takes a big leap, as Charleston annexes Daniel Island in Berkeley County.
1990: Waterfront Park opens. Charleston buys the Angel Oak property, protecting the historic tree while extending the city’s reach across Johns Island.
1990: Charleston City Council votes on Dec. 28 to annex Daniel Island. The Guggenheim Foundation, which owns the land, agrees two months later to voluntarily annex into the city.
1991: Contaminated soil is found at the Ansonborough Homes site at the east end of Calhoun Street, ending any talk of rebuilding the public housing damaged by Hurricane Hugo. Despite a federally overseen environmental cleanup that cost millions, rumors will persist that it was a ruse to gentrify the area. The city later sells parts of the property for redevelopment, with most becoming a new city park.
1991: Charleston moves its Visitor Center to a newly renovated railroad shed between King, Meeting, John and Ann streets. The project includes a new barn for tour buses and helps move visitors farther north on the peninsula.
1992: Interstate 526 opens from North Charleston to Mount Pleasant, providing new access to Daniel Island and spurring its development.
1993: The James Island connector opens.
1994: Riley runs for governor, placing second in the Democratic primary. It will be the last time he seeks office beyond City Hall.
The Charleston area braces for the closure of the region’s largest employer, the Charleston Naval Base in North Charleston. The peninsula gets a new baseball stadium, West Ashley gets a major new road, and Daniel Island’s development plan is laid out.
1995: The Glenn McConnell Parkway opens in West Ashley. On the Charleston peninsula, King Street, between Calhoun and Spring streets, is changed back to two-way traffic, ending a three-decade-long trend of making city streets one-way to move cars faster. Sections of several other streets will follow suit.
1996: Charleston City Council inks a $16.3 million deal to build “The Joe” baseball stadium. The first game, a year later, draws a capacity crowd. The Beach Co. completes Majestic Square, a large retail and office complex at the southwestern corner of King and Market streets. The city helps by building a public garage next door.
1996: The Charleston Naval Base closes, taking 20,000 jobs with it.
1997: The Charleston Maritime Center opens. The city acquired the property to prevent a development its zoning ordinance could not stop. While the center will not become a focal point for shrimp boats, as originally intended, it becomes a popular place for special events.
1998: Charleston and the Daniel Island Co. unveil the development plan for Daniel Island.
1999: Charleston turns the switch on a massive new drainage network designed to serve the area from East Bay to Calhoun to Meeting Streets. Designed with deep tunnels and pumps, the system becomes a model for similar projects to drain the City Market area and the Crosstown expressway.
The city’s growing popularity has made the peninsula increasingly unaffordable, and the peninsula’s black population has been declining sharply since the 1980s. The city launches a “gentrification task force” and pursues affordable housing initiatives.
2000: Riley leads a march to Columbia, aimed at convincing state lawmakers to take the Confederate flag down from the Statehouse. In Charleston, the South Carolina Aquarium opens. The city also opens West Ashley Park, a 260-acre park at 3401 Mary Ader Drive near the Glenn McConnell Parkway. The site, a former phosphate mine, becomes one of the city’s largest parks. Riley proposes a $40 million International African American Museum (which will still be in the fundraising stage 15 years later, with a $75 million price tag).
2001: The Family Circle Tennis Tournament strikes a deal to leave Hilton Head after 28 years and relocate to a new tennis center on Daniel Island. Marion Square reopens after a renovation designed to freshen its look and accommodate special events, including the Charleston Farmers Market.
2002: The state Supreme Court decides Charleston can order bars to close at 2 a.m. The $48 million Charleston County Judicial Center opens behind the historic, renovated courthouse, assuring that courts — and many lawyers’ offices — will remain downtown.
2002: In the most serious financial scandal during the Riley administration, city property coordinator Danny Molony and his son, Mark — the son and grandson of a judge who is a good friend of Riley — are caught in a scheme to steal city funds. Both are convicted and jailed, and the city wins a $635,000 judgement that it pursues vigorously.
2003: One Vendue Range opens, heralding a new era of condominium construction downtown. The project, built on land the city acquired while developing Waterfront Park, includes a small new city art museum that opens onto the park’s Pineapple Fountain.
Charleston is a thriving city and a top tourism destination, with traffic complaints and soaring home prices. The city presses ahead with affordable housing initiatives and planning efforts aimed at quality urban and suburban living.
2005: The Ravenel Bridge opens on July 16. Charleston is left with a large swath of property to redevelop where the old Cooper and Grace bridges used to sit. Charleston County conducts a property reassessment and the Charleston School District sharply raises taxes; two factors that together prompted a property tax revolt that led to sweeping changes in statewide property taxation (Act 388 of 2006).
2007: The Great Recession begins. Large developments planned throughout the Charleston area screech to a halt. The state and local governments cut budgets. The foreclosure crisis takes hold.
2007: On June 18 a fire at the Sofa Super Store in West Ashley claims the lives of nine firefighters; the worst loss of firefighter lives in the U.S. since 9/11. The investigations that follow prompt changes in Charleston’s firefighting tactics, Fire Chief Rusty Thomas steps down, and the Charleston Water System slashes the fees it charges businesses for sprinkler systems.
2009: The last of three phases of improving King Street wraps up, a project that improved sidewalks, moved power lines underground and freshened up two miles of the city’s main commercial street. King Street above Calhoun becomes a popular night spot.
2009: Carnival Cruise Lines announces its ship, the more than 2,000-passenger Fantasy, will be home-ported in Charleston, re-igniting long-running controversy over cruise ships and tourism, and foreshadowing a long legal battle over plans for a new State Ports Authority cruise ship terminal.
2009: Boeing chooses North Charleston as site for 787 Dreamliner final assembly plant.
As the nation slowly emerges from the Great Recession, delayed development projects spring back to life. Apartment buildings and hotels are built in large numbers. At the city’s suburban edge, at the end of West Ashley and on the Cainhoy peninsula, plans are affirmed for massive residential communities that will be under construction long after Riley leaves office.
2010: The census shows the population living on the Charleston peninsula has fallen below 35,000, the lowest in 70 years, and less than half the population in 1940. The peninsula has a white majority population for the first time since 1950.
2011: Charleston is named the top tourist destination in the U.S. by the Conde Nast Traveler reader poll.
2012: James Island forms a town, for the fourth time. This time, the city will not challenge the incorporation. Meanwhile, the city reopens its Maybank Tennis Center on the island following a renovation with help from the Charleston Parks Conservancy.
2013: The Charleston Irish Memorial Park opens, serving as the northeastern end to a public walkway envisioned to wind around the lower peninsula before ending at the The Joe baseball stadium.
2014: Colonial Lake is fenced off for a makeover that will add trees, paths and planting beds while improving the circulation and quality of its water. A plan by The Beach Co. to replace the nearby Sgt. Jasper apartment building proves controversial.
2015: In a racially motivated massacre that shocks Charleston and the nation, on June 17 nine people are shot to death during an evening prayer meeting at Emanuel AME Church on Calhoun Street by a young white gunman.
2015: The Gaillard Center opens, marking a dramatic $150 million makeover of the city’s 1960s auditorium and convention space.
2015: Charleston voters select a new mayor as Riley prepares to step down after 40 years in office.