As 2019 begins, we take a few minutes to chat with Mayor John Tecklenburg. We look to find out what’s on City Hall’s radar for the New Year, to ask serious questions that matter to locals and see if solutions are forthcoming for problems both old and new.
It’s no small secret you stepped into big shoes following Mayor Joe Riley, who long enjoyed a favorable relationship with the local media. There are those who say many of the issues currently in your lap were inherited and you’ve been too gentlemanly to speak out about the problems you’ve been facing as the city’s mayor. With your run for re-election coming up, we’d like to offer an opportunity to talk about these issues in your own words.
There is a lot of anger about the exploding number of hotels, condos and apartments on the peninsula … How have your administration’s policies on the matter varied from the prior administration’s?
First, let me thank you again for the chance to have a real conversation with you and your readers. I really do appreciate it.
Now, in terms of hotels, I think we’re facing two distinct challenges here in the city: first, traditional hotels as we’ve always understood them and second, short term rentals like AirBNB and HomeAway. And it’s no secret that I’ve proposed significant new restrictions on both.
Let’s start with traditional hotels, which are obviously a necessary and good amenity for our city — at least up to the point where they begin to squeeze out other kinds of uses and businesses. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the kind of damaging over-development that I believe we’ve been seeing for the past several years now and despite our repeated efforts, council has so far been unwilling to take strong action to address the problem. That said, we’re continuing to work hard on this issue and I would encourage all our citizens to attend the upcoming community forum on hotels, which will be co-sponsored by the Historic Charleston Foundation and the City Planning Department.
With regard to short-term rentals, the news is better, I’m glad to say. Thanks to the citizens who served on the STR Task Force and spent almost a full year putting our new ordinance together, we now have one of the strongest laws in the country and it’s already working to improve livability in neighborhoods across the city. That’s real progress on a critically important issue and I’d like to thank both our director of Planning, Jacob Lindsey and our director of livability, Dan Riccio, for all their efforts to make this new ordinance the success we all know it can and will be.
As for apartments and condos, that’s a somewhat more complicated question. On the one hand, we want and need affordable housing here in the city and supply is a critical component of that effort, particularly in the upper peninsula, where the city decided some years ago to focus its future growth and where we recently increased the affordable housing requirements for new developments. On the other hand, it’s important that we recognize the limited infrastructure that we currently have in many parts of our city and the strains that new housing places on these limited resources. In short, it’s a balancing act and one that we need to work hard to get right, so that we don’t wind up with either San Francisco real estate prices or Atlanta traffic jams throughout the area.
You’ve been trying to move mountains to fix the city drainage: How would you characterize the state of drainage when you came into office? Have you faced deferred-maintenance issues?
I think it’s fair to say that the focus was different. The simple truth is that Charleston enjoyed remarkably good weather and a very stable climate for more than a generation after Hurricane Hugo — and perhaps as a result, our attention as a city was drawn to other things. But then, starting in late 2015, everything changed. We had three historic storms in three years and extreme weather events such as king tides and rain bombs have been common occurrences ever since. This is a new and frankly, existential problem for Charleston — and it’s placed a terrible burden on our citizens.
So, yes, as you say, we have been trying to move mountains, not to mention several hundred million dollars worth of drainage shafts, pump stations, sea walls, check valves, maintenance crews and more. Speaking of which, I hope everyone will tune into this year’s State of the City on January 22, where I’ll be delivering a comprehensive flooding and drainage report to our citizens, detailing the progress we’ve made to date and our plans for the future.
In the meantime, in this limited space, I’ll just quote Winston Churchill, who in 1940 said the following about his war plan: “You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us.”
That’s the attitude we all need to have today toward flooding here in Charleston. And it’s the level of commitment we’re going to have to demonstrate to protect our city in the years ahead.
The WestEdge project is progressing rapidly at the corner of Lockwood and the Crosstown. This will bring thousands of cars a day to the spot. Traffic in the area is already problematic and we’re told there are no plans for a round-about or traffic flow improvements. Can you comment on your role in this?
That’s an issue that the state, county and city are all currently tackling together. First, the city is working with SCDOT to study a new connection for Hagood and the Septima Clark, which would help alleviate chokepoints in the area. Moreover, the county is spending $2 million dollars to see what can be done to ease traffic on the Septima Clark from the Interstate to Avondale. Also, the county is planning to make WestEdge and the hospital district a hub of the new Lowcountry Rapid Transit system, which should yield long-term benefits as well. And, finally, we’re also working on better pedestrian access in that part of the medical district via the new River Walk between Brittlebank and Lockwood, which is already permitted and scheduled to move forward as funding becomes available.
The prior administration was well known for major projects like the baseball stadium and the aquarium. What is their budgetary and economic impact each year?
Well, it’s hard to gauge the economic impact without some sort of a formal study, but we do know from ticket counts that several hundred thousand people enjoy those amenities every year. In terms of their budgetary impact, the Aquarium receives about half a million dollars a year, while the ballpark receives between one and a half and two and a half million, primarily from restricted accommodations and hospitality fees.
Aggressive parking enforcement practices downtown have drawn outrage; these were intensified under your administration. Please advise on what we understood were efforts to address some of these issues.
Well, not to quibble with the question, but in fairness, I think it’s been more of a mixed bag on parking. Some of the changes have, in fact, drawn outrage, while others have been met with real relief. For example, the city’s crackdown on undeserved and out-of-date neighborhood parking permits has been extremely well received by our full-time residents, as has our decision to enforce towing on street-sweeping days in neighborhoods that request it. Moreover, the reform of our ordinance on commercial vehicle tags has been popular with merchants and citizens alike. On the other hand, the vote to extend meter hours and raise rates to the same level as those in the tourist areas of Savannah and New Orleans has been controversial and is being carefully reviewed as a part of the citywide parking study, which is expected to be completed shortly. In the meantime, I’ve directed our Traffic and Transportation Department to relax enforcement after 9:30 p.m. and to offer longer parking periods on the meters at night, which will at least ease the inconvenience until we have a clear set of recommendations from the parking study.
While it’s not well-known yet, there’s been high praise for your HOP system among those who use it. It seems to be succeeding at alleviating traffic and parking woes for workers on the peninsula. However, among area residents, it’s common to hear the words, “I don’t even go downtown anymore. It’s lost to the tourists.” What other creative ideas do you have for dealing with millions of tourists a year?
You’re absolutely right about the HOP. That’s been a real success for our citizens from day one. And I’d like to take a second here to thank everyone who helped make it possible, particularly the CVB and CARTA, as well as our own director of transportation, Keith Benjamin.
As for other creative ideas, we’re currently focused on three big things. One, continued implementation of the Tourism Management Plan, which remains an excellent road map for the city’s efforts. Two, better dispersal of tourists throughout the city, as can be seen with the new visitors center at Drayton Hall. And three, major reform of the special events process, with the hiring of a new special events coordinator and a new emphasis on accountability from both participants and the city itself.
Although there are a handful of niche businesses on the peninsula that welcome cruise ships, approval of them among those who live and work on the peninsula is dismal — an opinion exacerbated by ships’ negative environmental impact, the small economic impact they provide local businesses and the traffic problems they create. Would you please comment on your thoughts about the cruise ships and the possibility of a “head tax” on passengers?
As I said above, the Tourism Management Plan really does have many of the right answers and that’s particularly true in the area of cruise ships. However, as you know, the city would have to have the state government’s permission to impose a head tax, shore power requirements or any of the other recommendations, which so far has not been forthcoming. That said, we’ve followed the plan’s recommendation to study the head tax and we’re prepared to move forward on it as soon as the state will allow.
One of the issues you discussed during your campaign was the four decades of economic focus on downtown Charleston and the lack of resources directed to West Ashley. What positive change has your city hall delivered for Charleston residents off the peninsula?
Well, that’s a big question to tackle in a limited space, but I’ll try to at least hit a few of the high points. First, yes, West Ashley has been a major focus of my administration, particularly in terms of the revitalization effort and, again, flooding, with tough new storm water rules for Church Creek and buyouts for homeowners who’ve experienced repetitive losses. In the same area, we’ve also worked with an independent storm water engineer to identify and design major infrastructure improvements and passed a dedicated TIF district fund with the County to help pay for them. On other West Ashley fronts, we’ve seen good, high-paying jobs moving into the area, with the announcement of MUSC’s new facility at Citadel Mall and the recent expansion of Charles River Labs, as well as strong collaboration between the county and city on major roads projects, such as the Glenn McConnell and Savannah Highway. And finally, of course, there’s the West Ashley Master Plan, which was formally adopted by council last year and is quite simply the largest, most ambitious project of its kind in our city’s history.
Elsewhere in the city, on James Island, we’ve passed and implemented the Rethink Folly Road plan and for the first time, begun working closely with the town to ensure that citizens are getting the best services possible, regardless of what color their garbage can happens to be.
On James and John’s Islands, our citywide traffic plan finally cleared the way for the county’s widening of Maybank and makes several much-needed road improvements on both islands eligible for expedited state and federal funding.
And on Daniel Island, we’ve now settled all outstanding claims from the original agreement, making good on the city’s long-standing commitment to provide parks and recreation facilities for our citizens and families in the area.
Thank you, Mr. Mayor.
Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.