When Glenda Hood was elected mayor of Orlando, she joined the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, an organization spearheaded by Joe Riley, then-mayor of Charleston, South Carolina. In founding the Mayors’ Institute, Riley, the longest-serving U.S. mayor and a ULI visiting fellow, set out to educate influential mayors on the role they can play in their cities’ urban design, with a goal of fostering a unified community.
“I was thrilled when I was first elected mayor and even more so when I was selected to attend one of the Mayors’ Institute’s sessions,” Hood said. “I remember Joe Riley walked into the room and talked to us, and the passion and vision he displayed and always represents was truly remarkable.”
Riley is renowned across the United States for his singular vision in developing Charleston into an exemplary capital of community-centric urban design. Serving an unprecedented 40 years as the mayor of the city, Riley had a hand in the city’s transformation from a distressed and shrinking southern city to a model for city development.
Riley, who currently serves as a professor of American government and public policy at his alma mater, the Citadel, recognizes that the role of mayor is inherently meant to be transformative. “The mayor has the challenge of orchestrating a livable city,” Riley said during ULI’s Florida Summit, held at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel, as he detailed his own success story for revitalizing Charleston’s urban downtown. In conversation with Riley were two of central Florida’s current and former mayors: Hood, who served as mayor of Orlando from 1993 to 2003, and Bob Buckhorn, the longtime mayor of Tampa.
From the outset, Riley’s vision was one of unity. “A city is an ecosystem,” Riley said. “If your ecosystem is not healthy, then you work to restore it.” His promise to turn Charleston into a world-class city began with the revitalization of its central business district, with a hotel, convention center, and office building called Charleston Place. Though met with opposition at the outset, the project was ultimately completed in 1986, and today remains the nerve center of Charleston’s historic district.
Riley also instituted several initiatives that promoted public access to the city’s waterfront, with recreational and green spaces complementing the city’s booming port and logistics industry. For Riley, preserving the architectural and natural elements of Charleston—its historic buildings and willowy oak trees—was extremely important to the city’s overall design.
It is a point that Hood maintains was top of mind during her tenure as mayor, as Orlando was in the throes of planning a revitalization of the Audubon Park Garden District, an eco-district initiative hosting local businesses, a farmers market, and an urban community garden centered on one of Orlando’s largest parks. “Every time I saw a tree, I thought of [Joe Riley],” Hood laughed, but Riley’s influence on her extended beyond her green-focused design.
“Joe Riley really talked about the role and influence of the mayor,” Hood said. “I knew I had to communicate and constantly educate, and include every voice in the community. It took us eight years to go through all the appropriate policies and inclusions, and in the end, we developed a brand-new neighborhood with a village center where people can work and play, and protected the public space and made sure it was seamlessly connected with the community.”
Buckhorn derived a similar benefit from his time at the Mayors’ Institute with Riley. “We were supposed to bring a civic problem and work it out for a few days with a panel of experts,” Riley said. “The city was spending over $100,000 a year to maintain an old federal courthouse, which had fallen into disrepair. I brought it to Joe Riley and we put out an RFP, and an amazing transformation took place—we preserved the rooms, added a great restaurant, and developed the projects with a pedestrian feel to engage our local community.” Now managed by international design-focused hotel brand Le Méridien, Le Méridien Tampa was honored by Condé Nast Traveler for two consecutive years.
Hood and Buckhorn both stressed the importance of patience when working with the local community. Sometimes, Hood noted, projects take longer than your tenure in office. She points to her work in developing a cultural center in the downtown Orlando community—a project she was unable to get off the ground as mayor, though she undoubtedly laid a strong foundation for its eventual development.
“You have to be patient until you see implementation,” she said. “I tried very hard during my three terms as mayor to get a performing arts center built in downtown Orlando, and 25 years later we have a brand-new performing arts center.”
She also recalled that, at the time, Riley had some advice for her, and his words crystallized the role of elected officials in city development. “He said, ‘Maybe the best thing you can do is develop a really good master plan. Your legacy will be not what is built, but to put in motion a process that will transform a city.’ ”