You got the big job and you’re well on your way through your first term. What’s been your biggest surprise since taking office?
First, I want to thank Charles, and the whole salmon-stained Mercury team, for giving me this chance to share my thoughts on some of the most critical issues facing our city. Oddly enough, given the day-to-day realities of being mayor, that doesn’t happen as often as you’d think — and I really appreciate it when it does.
Now, as for the biggest surprise: For 25 years after Hurricane Hugo, we mostly enjoyed good weather and a stable climate here in Charleston. And then, starting in 2015 — bam! — three major floods in three years and the worst snow and ice storm since the early 1970s. I think it’s fair to say that the sudden emergence of these extreme weather events has been a surprise to just about everyone — and, more importantly, a real hardship for our citizens. Which is why resilience, as it relates to flooding and drainage, is now at the very top of our city’s agenda.
It’s only natural that people would compare you to the last mayor given his longevity. In what ways do you see yourself as being different from Mayor Riley?
I’d say the biggest difference is in the challenges we faced when we came to office. Forty years ago, Charleston was experiencing the kinds of issues that were playing out all across the country in the 1970s — crime, urban decay, population loss, a struggling commercial district, post-civil-rights race relations and more. The problems of failure, basically. Today, on the other hand, we’re having to deal with the problems of success – development challenges, inadequate infrastructure and an absolutely critical need to preserve and protect the livability of our neighborhoods and our citizens’ quality of life. Those are very different challenges and they call for very different responses from city government. Race relations, however, are still an issue, and one that we as a city and community continue to work through every day.
So far, what do you rank as your biggest accomplishments, Mr. Mayor?
The single biggest accomplishment, I think, was finding a new way to give our citizens a real seat at the table on the most critical issues facing the city — which seemed to cause a little heartburn for some folks early on, but has really proven its worth over time. Because, honestly, that’s been the key ingredient in all our other major successes to date.
For example, after the authority of the Board of Architectural Review was severely limited by the courts in the Sgt. Jasper case, we worked with local preservation groups to reform and strengthen the BAR ordinance from the ground up, protecting it against future legal challenges. As a part of that, we undertook a major city rezoning effort, which had the effect of reducing heights across 80 percent of the peninsula.
Then, working with the West Ashley Revitalization Commission and literally thousands of our citizens, we were able to create West Ashley’s first master plan — a world-class effort that will help guide West Ashley revitalization for the next generation and beyond.
And, of course, just recently, we passed the short-term rental ordinance to finally give real protections to our residential neighborhoods, which would not have been possible without the active engagement of citizens from all across our city.
Beyond those things, I’d also note our hiring a Chief Resilience Officer, and setting a new focus on flooding and drainage, including the Church Creek basin, check valve installation, revision of storm water requirements and much more.
And, of course, the other question — what have been your biggest disappointments or difficulties so far?
Controlling the growth of hotels. Three times, we proposed major ordinance changes to address the problem, and three times, they failed to gain any real traction. Finally, on our fourth try, we were able to make some meaningful progress, but not as much as we need. That’s been a real personal frustration, frankly. And it’s just not going to get any better until our citizens show up — repeatedly and in large numbers — to demand change.
There are lots of challenges in a growing city like Charleston — what key challenges are you planning to tackle in the remainder of your first term?
As I said in the state of the city in January, we have to focus all of city government on the most important issues facing our citizens, particularly those related to controlling over-development and protecting our citizens’ quality of life – namely, flooding and drainage, traffic and transportation, affordable and workforce housing and maintaining public safety. Those are my top priorities every day when I come into work.
What is Charleston’s biggest challenge right now?
Number one above — flooding and drainage.
Flooding is a critical issue — storm surges crashing over the Low Battery wall, flooding on Lockwood Drive, the flooding on the East Side and South Battery, king tides, sunny day flooding, overdevelopment contributing to flooding. What are your priorities on flooding and how are you doing addressing them?
Currently, we’re proceeding on two tracks — the short-term and the medium term. As I’ve been telling people for more than a year now, there’s just no time for “long term” when it comes to the flooding problem in Charleston.
So, short term, here’s what we’re doing right now. First, we’re completing all the maintenance and infrastructure improvements we can fund out of current revenues, such as the Spring/Fishburne tunnel, West Forest Oaks project, Market Street area and many more. We are also aggressively testing and adding new check valves in several flood-prone areas throughout the city. Second, we’re working with our legal, planning, engineering and resilience teams to create new zoning and stormwater standards for residential and commercial developments, some of which we’ll be bringing forward in the next 30 days. Third, we’re updating the city’s flooding and resilience plan, with specific initiatives for problem areas like the Church Creek Drainage basin. Fourth, we’re working with FEMA to buy out as many repetitive loss properties as possible, with the city, rather than our homeowners, paying the 25 percent match. Fifth, we’re working with our legislators in Columbia to get the freedom we need to move tourism taxes into flooding and drainage — something that we aren’t allowed to do under state law today. Sixth, thanks to a grant from the Bloomberg Foundation, we’re working with the National Weather Service on a first-of-its-kind flooding app, which will allow our commuters and others to make smart, real-time decisions about routes, start times and more based on the best information available. And finally, in addition to those items and others, we’re working to identify the future funding mechanisms we’re going to need for several large infrastructure projects moving forward.
Which, of course, brings us to the medium term, where we’re in the design and engineering phases of major new underground tunnels and pumping stations, rebuilding and extension of the city sea wall, and wholesale re-workings of particularly troubled drainage basins such as Church Creek. Beyond that, we’ve entered into what we believe will be a continuing relationship with the Dutch Dialogue group to get the benefit of their centuries of expertise on flooding-related issues as we move forward.
All of which is to say that, in terms of flooding and drainage, we’re busy now and about to get even busier. And that’s exactly what our city needs.
Money is a problem — one of our columnists suggests taxing the tourists and taking money from the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank Board, as this is obviously an infrastructure issue. We know you recently put your support behind a head tax on cruise ship visitors. How about the Infrastructure Bank? What pieces will make up the approximately $2 billion most people think we need to address the flooding?
When it comes to flooding and drainage, money isn’t a problem, it’s the problem, particularly in terms of big infrastructure projects, like the Low Battery sea wall, Calhoun West and the Church Creek Drainage basin. That’s why we’ve increased available stormwater resources by 25 percent this year. And it’s why I thought it was so important for us to hire our first full-time grant writer to work side-by-side with our first full-time director of resilience.
We expect to see the results of that collaboration start to roll out over the next several months, with major new applications to the federal government, including FEMA, the state, including the SIB, private foundations and more.
The state owns Lockwood Drive, the ports and other areas that are prone to flooding. Are you pressing them to develop an action plan to address these issues?
In a word, yes. Flooding and drainage is an all-hands-on-deck problem here in Charleston and we need our state partners to be fully engaged in that process. Of the $2 billion estimate that has been discussed, half of that involves state-owned roads and assets.
Tourism is another big issue — 130,000 citizens must host six million tourists every year. You ran on a platform of “livability.” But we are seeing congested roads, tourists wandering around aimlessly into the streets, increased parking fees, parking spaces taken up for valet parking and vendor carts, more big hotels replacing small local businesses downtown, buses, carriages, pedi-cabs and bicycles slowing traffic just to carry tourists who apparently can’t walk … Where does this end, Mr. Mayor, when is enough enough?
As you know, I agree with the point you’re making — and, interestingly, part of the answer may be buried right there in your question. Because we now know that we didn’t have six million tourists last year — we actually had seven million, when you add in all the people that the recent College of Charleston study showed were staying in short term rentals. Which means that we may have already taken a huge step toward addressing these problems with the passage of the new STR ordinance in early April.
Now, obviously, there’s still a great deal to be done — starting, in my view, with hotels, cruise ships and heightened vigilance with regard to enforcement of our livability ordinances. But the new STR law looks like a good start, and I’d like to personally thank all the citizens and preservation groups who worked so hard with us to help get it written and passed.
Other than the new park and ride pilot program in NoMo, when will we build parking garages outside the city for tourists and commuters to use and provide transportation from I-26 and in from West Ashley into town?
Garages are tremendously expensive, so we must first exhaust the use of potential surface lots. Just last week, CARTA and city officials visited over 50 potential sites for consideration. So, that’s an area where we need real collaboration with our state and regional partners, because the real problem isn’t finding remote parking — we can do that. The challenge is ensuring that CARTA has the resources to provide reliable transportation after the cars are parked. The good news is that the new park and ride lot on Morrison Drive is already a great success, which should go a long way toward convincing everyone involved that public transit investments like these are some of the best investments we can make.
Apparently the recently acquired “Low Line” is to be used as a bike trail. But a bike trail will likely serve only a few hundred people — did the city also stipulate that the “Low Line” could be used for light rail to bring commuters, hospitality workers and tourists from a future parking garage farther north away from the city to relieve congestion downtown?
Yes, we did. There are no restrictions for transit use and we’ll study any and all potential uses including a bike/ped facility. We believe integration with our proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system is a must.
Given the traffic, flooding and parking issues the peninsula already has, are you still for completing I-526 or do you think a modern mass-traffic plan would be a better solution?
As I’ve always said, public safety is the first job of government. And just since I’ve been mayor, the citizens of John’s Island have been completely cut off from emergency services on four separate occasions due to inadequate roadways leading on and off the island. So, first, I guess I’d have to say, show me a “modern mass-traffic plan” that addresses that issue, and I’ll be happy to take a look at it.
Regarding 526 specifically, mass transit such as BRT still requires getting around the region with those new vehicles. I believe we need both — a convenient, usable mass transit system and highways and bike/ped facilities to allow different modes of transportation. I-526 needs to be improved to include mass transit and multi-modalism and to do so well it needs to be extended as originally intended.
For now, here’s where we are: I’ve asked the county to make the Maybank Highway pitchforks job one on John’s Island and I think we’re starting to see some real progress there. We should know a lot more about what that’s going to look like over the next few weeks.
There’s no legal binding stopping the growth of the cruise ship business and that growth could turn Charleston into the disaster Venice, Dubrovnik, Key West and St. Maarten have become due to cruise ships. Are you for getting the SPA to move the cruise terminal away from downtown? Are you for getting a legally binding limit on cruise ships at the voluntary level of 104 ships with a maximum of 3,500 passengers?
With regard to cruise ships, I continue to favor all of the recommendations of the Tourism Management Plan, which I’ll quote directly here: “continue the dialogue on the installation of shore power, as recommended by the South Carolina Medical Association and the Charleston County Medical Society, and included as a proviso in the South Carolina state budget; explore ways to coordinate and manage the calendar to avoid cruise ship arrivals on the days of major events such as the Bridge Run, Spoleto Festival opening, and college graduations; evaluate the possibility of remote passenger parking to reduce congestion; with an eye to the future, continue to study ways to strengthen the voluntary agreement limiting the number and size of cruise ships visiting Charleston; and study the possibility of defraying the costs the city incurs in supporting the cruise ship industry by charging a passenger head tax.”
What issues do you think you can get Charleston City Council to embrace to move the city forward?
Not to sound like a broken record but, as far as I’m concerned, the big issues are clear: flooding and drainage, traffic and transportation, affordable housing and maintaining public safety. And the good news is that there’s a real consensus on council for that agenda — though, as always, the devil is in the details.
Mr. Mayor, if you could ignore any political constraints and simply wave a magic wand and make any ONE problem disappear or any ONE thing happen that you wanted to have happen — what would it be?
That’s easy: flooding and drainage. It’s the single most important issue facing our citizens, and the most critical for protecting our city’s future. And regardless of the challenges ahead, we’re going to fix it — come hell or, well, high water.