Mayoral Musings on Daniel Island's 20th Anniversary
About 15 years into his tenure as Charleston’s longest serving mayor, and well before helping to make the Holy City the world’s number one place to visit, Joseph P. Riley, Jr., had a vision for a 4,000 acre swath of land nestled between the Cooper and Wando Rivers. The year was 1990 and Daniel Island, a largely undeveloped and uninhabited parcel then owned by the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, was up for grabs.
“The foundation could no longer justify holding an asset that valuable, because they had fiduciary duties,” said Riley. “I saw it as a very important strategic opportunity for the City of Charleston and I knew my duty to the citizens and the future was to make sure that Daniel Island became a part of the City of Charleston.”
Looming just across the Wando River at the time was the still unfinished Mark Clark Expressway, also known as I-526. It would become the first highway to connect Daniel Island to North Charleston and Mount Pleasant. The new roadway was scheduled for completion in 1991, and development was sure to follow. In 1989, the Guggenheim Foundation announced ambitious plans to turn Daniel Island into a new residential community.
And so the stage was set for a historic showdown. A courtship dance for the island was playing out across the region, as mayors in North Charleston and Mount Pleasant joined Riley in expressing interest in the promising new territory east of the Cooper, then an unincorporated part of Berkeley County. Behind the scenes, Riley worked with City Attorney William B. Regan and Assistant City Attorney Frances Cantwell to put together a plan to annex Daniel Island without the consent of the Guggenheim Foundation.
Legally speaking, they didn’t need the foundation’s approval. The law required that the city be petitioned by at least 75 percent of the landowners representing 75 percent of the assessed value of the properties to be annexed. So Riley and his team got landowners of nearby Rodent and Parker Islands to join in on the deal. Mary Durben, a former writer for the Daniel Island News, summed up the transaction in a 2008 article in the paper:
Daniel Island, though much larger than the other two islands at 9.9 miles, had an assessed value of only $25,160 because it had been used only for farming. Rodent Island, owned by developer Robert Knoch, was valued at $2,090 and adjacent marshes were valued at $7,260. Parkers Island, owned by another developer, Joseph P. Griffith, had an assessed value of $312,260, and another unnamed island was valued at $1,010. The land exclusive of Daniel Island had a value of $323,650, more than 75 percent of the total. Griffith, a friend of the mayor, agreed to divide his property among nine family members to create more owners in order to help the city meet the 75 percent of owners requirement.
It was a “roundabout route,” touted a headline in a 1991 article in the Post and Courier, but Riley was convinced it was the best way to achieve his goal of bringing Daniel Island into the city. He reportedly called an emergency City Council meeting at 5 p.m. on December 28, 1990, to push the measure through. Council members gave the first reading of the annexation ordinance a unanimous thumbs up.
“Riley felt he’d pulled off one of the great midnight coups in Charleston history,” wrote Brian Hicks in his book The Mayor: Joe Riley and the Rise of Charleston. “This would allow the city to grow in another direction and block the efforts of other towns to encroach on Charleston’s borders. Daniel Island would add significant property to the tax base and population to the city in the years to come.”
And so began what later would be described by Riley as his “Louisiana Purchase” of Daniel Island. Some called the way he went about the acquisition “unfair” and even illegal, according to news reports published at the time, but Riley was undeterred. His actions caught the Guggenheim Foundation by surprise and they eventually sued the city to stop the annexation, but their legal pursuits were later dropped.
“The Foundation asked for proposals from Charleston, North Charleston and Mount Pleasant before any court battle began,” continued Hicks in The Mayor. “Riley’s plan focused not on basic services, but on the parks and public spaces Charleston would build. He argued that Daniel Island had to be public, and its parks would define the island. The foundation lawyers were intrigued, but may have been swayed more by acquaintances at the National League of Cities, who praised Charleston and its reputation for smart growth. The Guggenheim Foundation soon dropped the lawsuit and accepted the annexation.”
The official annexation of Daniel Island would ultimately be approved in February of 1991. Current Daniel Island Company President Matt Sloan, who was then working for the public policy firm Hamilton, Rabinovitz & Alschuler in New York, was sent down to Charleston to represent the foundation’s interests in the annexation.
“The Mayor, the reason he annexed the property was he figured out…that once the Mark Clark (Expressway) opened, the whole dynamic of how people commute and recreate and shop was going to change,” said Sloan, while addressing a gathering of the Daniel Island Historical Society in May of 2016. “…Daniel Island was ultimately going to become the center of the region, which is how we consider ourselves now. So he was willing to expend political capital in order to bring it into the city.”
In 1991, Charleston was certainly not the award-winning city it is known as today. But Riley was a planner, Sloan continued, not necessarily by training, but from “the school of hard knocks.” And he knew Daniel Island had great potential.
“He had a vision for what this place should be,” said Sloan. “And it was all driven by what was going to happen with the Mark Clark Expressway…He was willing to put his money where his mouth is, and also to work with us on some master planning zoning.”
A plan was crafted for the new community to feature a neo-traditional design, including sidewalks, narrow streets, views of open water, plentiful public spaces, and pocket parks. Riley pushed for it not to be gated, so it could be open and accessible to all.
“An obvious solution to many people, and perhaps the foundation, was the way you handle a big piece of land like that would be (to make it) a gated community with golf courses and places to live,” said Riley, during a fall 2016 interview. “I told Jim Hester (who was then director of the Guggenheim Foundation) that would be wrong. It should be a new Charleston, but with Charleston in the public spaces and diversity…It should be a wonderful, livable place for all kinds of people.”
Riley shared his thoughts and ideas with the island’s original designers, Jaquelin Robertson, Andres Duany, and Duany’s wife, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, whom he described as a “world class team.”
“It looks obvious now, because you see it, but it wasn’t obvious (then),” added Riley. “It was all undeveloped. One of the important things that the designers did was study how the land had been used. So where there were paths or trails or roads, honor those. The older trees that had become iconic, honor those. And then build upon that existing pattern.”
In 1995, the year before the island’s first residents would move in, the February/March edition of Charleston Magazine featured extensive coverage of the new development, dubbing it “Treasure Island” and the “Lowcountry’s hottest waterfront property.”
“The development of a community on Daniel Island is shaping up to be one of the most radical new efforts in town planning since architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s visionary ideas early in this century,” wrote Patrick Sharbaugh in an article in the magazine entitled ‘Back to the Future.’ “The efforts are revolutionary not for their original approach to town planning, but, ironically, for their adherence to design principles abandoned half a century ago. Daniel Island represents a historic opportunity.”
The island’s popularity grew rapidly once homes started springing up in 1996. Riley’s forecast for what the community could become was clearly resonating, as new “pioneering” residents eagerly sought to explore the new territory. Over the next two decades, Riley would be present for many celebratory “opening” events on the island – Bishop England High School, the island’s very first school, in 1997; the Family Circle Tennis Center in 2001; the affordable housing complex at 305 Seven Farms Drive in 2006; Governors Park in 2012, and more.
Riley was also on hand when former Daniel Island residents John and Sandy Tecklenburg opened the island’s first general store, Tecklenburg’s Market and Cafe, on River Landing Drive in 2000. John Tecklenburg, who had formerly served under Mayor Riley as his economic development director, saw great promise in the new island community. During his time with the city, Tecklenburg sat in on presentations about the up and coming development by the Guggenheim Foundation.
“Something just struck me when I saw that presentation,” said Tecklenburg, who became Charleston’s Mayor in January 2016, after Mayor Riley finished out his tenth and final term. “It would be the perfect place to have a family grocery store. My family had run one in downtown Charleston for over a century, and it just kind of connected with me. I planned and actually built the first little grocery story on Daniel Island!”
Tecklenburg also remembers several momentous moments in the island’s early days of development.
“To me, the milestone events are the first park created, which was Etiwan Park, just to show what could be done,” said Tecklenburg, who now lives in West Ashley. “And Bishop England coming right across the street from that was a great affirmation of what Daniel Island was going to be. The Family Circle Stadium, now Volvo (Car Stadium), and that complex, which is a beautiful design and a wonderful amenity for residents…and the affordable housing…it was sticking with the commitment this would be a place with all different kinds of people living there.”
Over the last two decades, the island has earned numerous accolades, including the Urban Land Institute Award for Excellence, America’s Best Suburban Smart Growth Community, and America’s Best Master-Planned Community. Today, some 10,000 residents call Daniel Island home and it is host to dozens of special events and programs that attract thousands of guests each year. Both Mayor Riley and his successor continue to have high praise for the community.
“The plan for Daniel Island was so thoughtfully done,” said Tecklenburg. “…It was an excellent decision and a great example of good planning…The natural environment is gorgeous…So we got the best of both worlds.”
“My hopes and aspirations for Daniel Island were substantial,” added Riley. “I knew it had tremendous opportunity. But it has exceeded that. It’s so wonderfully successful. It’s beautiful, it’s livable…Daniel Island is nationally celebrated…It shows how you do it well. You plan it correctly, you design it, you execute it, along with a great commitment to quality, and then you make it a wonderful place for everyone.”