Renaming Waterfront Park most appropriate, and most difficult

The Pineapple Fountain at Waterfront Park. After a Tuesday vote by Charleston City Council, the park will now be called Riley Waterfront Park.

There was a conspiracy afoot at City Hall this week, all of it orchestrated behind the mayor’s back.

Some of Joe Riley’s longtime friends and supporters had been talking to City Council about the best way for the city to honor His Honor for 40 years of service, and they had an idea:

How about naming one of the mayor’s greatest achievements — Waterfront Park — after him?

It was a nice sentiment, but not exactly the easiest thing in the world to pull off.

Not much happens around the city without the mayor’s knowledge, and he has been known to get ornery about having things named after him.

Back in the 1990s, City Councilwoman Mary Ader had the idea to christen the city’s new baseball stadium Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park and got her colleagues to go along with it. But when they sprang this idea at a City Council meeting, which the mayor presides over, it was nearly derailed.

By Riley.

He not only voted against it but even declared after an 11-1 vote in favor that “the no’s have it.”

This time Councilman Bill Moody was ready. The city’s legal staff drew up the resolution in secret, and just after Riley called Tuesday’s City Council meeting to order, Moody asked that Mayor Pro Tem Keith Waring be allowed to preside over the meeting.

“I don’t look faint, do I?” Riley said.

Then the mayor looked up, saw that his family had filed into the balcony, and realized something was up.

Now, there’s a new Riley Park in town.

Waterfront Park is perhaps the most wonderful public space in a city filled with them.

The 25-year-old, 12-acre public space is the very best place to sit and take in the most gorgeous harbor on the East Coast.

And it was Riley’s idea.

The plan for Waterfront Park goes back to the mayor’s first term, when he learned that a developer planned a huge condo/retail complex for the land. He worked for years to get that land, once getting to the point he almost took it by eminent domain. But he didn’t.

That was the birth of one of his most visionary ideas — that waterfront land should be open to all citizens, not just a few.

It took more than a decade to build the park, Riley so involved that he even studied samples of various gravels before choosing the kind that would cover the paths. All that work paid off, and the city has loved it ever since.

About a week after the Waterfront Park opened in May 1990, local attorney and historian Robert Rosen called the park the mayor’s greatest achievement. He said the name didn’t fit, however.

It should be called “Riley Park,” he said.

All these years later, people listened.

All these years later, Waterfront Park is still special to the mayor.

Just last week he was talking about taking a walk through it between evening appointments and marveling at how that germ of an idea all those years ago has now become an indelible part of Charleston’s landscape.

Meanwhile, a lot of people were working behind the scenes to give it the name it should have gotten all those years ago.

And trying to figure out how to distinguish it from Riley Park, where the RiverDogs play. Hence “Riley Waterfront Park,” which shouldn’t be mistaken for The Joe.

It would, however, be easier to hit a baseball out of that park.

Riley has been a master of the big, high-impact projects: the S.C. Aquarium, The Joe, the forthcoming International African American Museum. Charleston Place literally changed the city.

But Rosen was prescient. Waterfront Park is special — a fabulous outdoor space available to everyone, all the time. Along with Riley’s efforts to bring unity to this city, which has been on display this year, Waterfront Park may be his most lasting legacy.

Luckily, this time Riley did not fight the efforts to put his name on a park. He simply said, “Thank you.”

Riley says that after he leaves office he plans to spend even more time in the park because, “When I get out there watching people use it, and see the joy they get from it, it makes me very happy,” he says.

That was by design. Waring was absolutely correct Tuesday night when he said the Waterfront Park bears the mayor’s fingerprints.

And it absolutely deserves his name.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com

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