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Eblen: Charleston Mayor offers guidance for downtown development

March 8, 2010

Charleston, S.C., Mayor Joe Riley was in Lexington last week for a talk about some of the successes that that quintessential Southern city has had in preserving its history while cultivating downtown development.

Lexington Herald-Leader columnist Tom Eblen was there for Riley’s presentation, and it sounds like many from Owensboro would have benefited from taking in the talk, and found encouragement for some of the tactics and projects already under way here.

From Eblen’s column

People who know Charleston often remark on what a great city it is — the beautiful waterfront, the Spoleto arts festival and the colorfully painted historical homes. Those old enough to remember what the city used to be like talk about how much it has improved.

During Riley’s tenure, Charleston’s annual tourist trade has increased from 1.7 million to 4.4 million visitors. At the same time, the city has often made lists of the best places to live and do business.

It sounds like one piece of the puzzle that Charleston has relied on is already in place here, and was implemented as part of the downtown planning process. The city of Owensboro has created downtown overlay districts and design standards, including the position of downtown design administrator, to help developers have a better expectation of design standards and discourage haphazard development.

Here’s what Riley said they have done in Charleston, according to Eblen –

Historic preservation hasn’t been so much about preserving the past — “we’re not a movie set or a theme park,” Riley said — but about creating an authentic, irreplaceable and human-scale environment where people naturally want to be. That also means insisting that new development be well designed, well built and, well, worthy of being in Charleston.

That means having effective laws and regulations, but also having the kind of professional architectural review processes that Lexington lacks. Such a process helps to ensure that new development is appropriate, well designed and in the best interests of the entire city and not just an individual developer or property owner.

“Try not to plop things down,” Riley said of new development. “Make it work. Make it fit.”

Owensboro could do worse than to emulate what Charleston has done, and it’s encouraging to hear that some of the successful strategies that city has had appear to be at work in Owensboro.

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