CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg delivered his first State of the City address Tuesday evening, marking the first time in 40 years someone other than Joe Riley did so.
Tecklenburg was sworn in as Charleston's 61st mayor just 15 days ago, a moment he said was "rich with the promise of a better, brighter future for all our citizens."
He began the address by recognizing Charleston City Council members, calling each one by name to have them stand and be recognized by the audience.
His focus was then his vision for Charleston's future, naming five major areas to focus on in what he described as "a practical, comprehensive quality-of-life plan" for the Holy City, a plan he said would not only help ensure Charleston's reputation as the best city in the nation to visit, but also the best in which to live, work, worship and raise a family:
- Citywide livability
- Transportation and public transit
- Economy, Jobs and housing
- More responsive city services
- Specific initiatives to improve each area of the city, from West Ashley to the Peninsula and from Daniel Island to James and Johns Islands.
Tecklenburg said the place to begin in terms of citywide livability is with "the first job of government: public safety."
He said Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen has introduced a series of initiatives to make citizens safer and better unite the community.
"First among these is the Illumination Project, an innovative, year-long effort to break down the barriers between our police and the community they serve, and to build lasting relationships based on trust and mutual respect," Tecklenburg said. "Funded by the city, the police fund and private donations, this project is seen as a groundbreaking initiative, and a model for cities around the country."
He said the police department has also launched a Community Outreach Unit, and is now testing a new citation and release pilot program he said is designed to reduce the number of citizens incarcerated for minor offenses. He also cited the department's strides in using technology, specifically the new Crime Information Operations Center and more than 170 body cameras already deployed.
Tecklenburg said the city's fire department has also made increasing safety a priority, adding providing "robust emergency response to the Upper Cainhoy Peninsula" would be a principle priority in 2016.
Brack plans to open a temporary station in that area until a suitable property can be acquired for a permanent station. Tecklenburg promised the groundbreakings of new fire stations in West Ashley, which will help improve service in the Savannah Highway, Bees Ferry Road and Glenn McConnell Parkway area.
"Along with these new stations, our fire department is launching two new operations initiatives this year," he said. "A community paramedic program that will place two to four 'quick response' vehicles in strategic locations to enhance service for some of our most vulnerable citizens, and a back to basics program that will ensure we are using current best practices in the areas of fire suppression and rescue procedures."
Tecklenburg said the city has funding in place for several existing drainage projects, including the completion of the Market Street drainage tunnel and Phase 2 of the Septima Clark Parkway area drainage improvements. Additional projects already begun will focus on areas around West Oak Forest, the St. Andrews Shopping Center, Citadel Mall, Orleans Road and West Calhoun Street, and said the city will work with Shadowmoss residents to find solutions in their neighborhood.
"In addition to these projects, we will begin work this year on review and expansion of the City's just-released sea-level rise plan, which will be the foundation of our strategy to mitigate the effects of sea level rise, now and in the years ahead," he said.
Tecklenburg said a citywide zoning review was another priority and would protect neighborhoods from what he called "irresponsible development."
He also said efforts to bring people and businesses together to reform the city's Gathering Place ordinance have resulted in productive meetings.
"We hope to have a new, more workable, more neighborhood-friendly ordinance before this Council at a date not far in the future," he said.
He said the city would continue its efforts in protecting the natural environment, including preserving and expanding green space. He referred to the Lowline, which he described as a "remarkable project that will convert an abandoned rail line into a linear park connecting several upper peninsula neighborhoods."
"Finally, with regard to improving general livability, it's time for us to ensure that the cultural arts are accessible to citizens throughout our city," he said. "And to do that, we will be working with city officials and the private sector to identify affordable space for local arts organizations, partnering with city schools to offer more arts programs at all age levels, and expanding our current efforts to spread arts and cultural programs such as Piccolo Spoleto and the MOJA Arts Festival to more areas and schools, so that all of our citizens can attend and participate."
Tecklenburg said the completion of I-526 is the "single most critical infrastructure challenge facing our city," and called for state and regional leaders to work together to save the initiative.
"This is not just another local road project, as some outside our area have mistakenly suggested," he said. "It is critical to the future growth of our entire state -- with tourism, the aviation industry and our remarkable Port of Charleston all dependent on the efficient movement of people and products from one end of our county to the other."
If the project is lost, he said, West Ashley residents would not be the only victims.
"Our whole state's economy will suffer -- and we will all soon find ourselves asking why the next Boeing or the next Volvo decided not to call our beautiful state of South Carolina home," he said.
Charleston's traffic woes are improving, he said, thanks to progress on rethinking Folly Road, the widening of Clements Ferry and the I-26 Alt Study, which recommended a bus rapid transit system from Summerville to Charleston.
But Tecklenburg's transportation plan includes two other elements: making the city more walkable and bikeable, and improving the city's parking policies, to include a move toward unsubsidized parking rates for visitors, the creation of "park and ride" opportunities outside the city center, an expansion of parking opportunities for neighborhood residents, and discounts for non-Peninsula citizens who come Downtown to work, shop, worship, or play, he said.
Tecklenburg's economic redevelopment plans begin with "a particular focus" on West Ashley revitalization, creating and keeping knowledge-based and value-added jobs, deploying a full-time city staffer to connect people with jobs coming open and continuing efforts to encourage headquarters and office relocation into Charleston.
To ensure residents are ready for those jobs, Tecklenburg called for efforts to work directly with the school district to offer more vocational and training opportunities for students, along with more mentoring, recreational and after school programs, and more summer jobs for teens, particularly those most in need.
He also wants to expand partnerships with private employers and further develop the city's incubator program to help grow local and small businesses.
"And finally, we must tackle the challenge of affordable housing – a challenge that has grown considerably in recent years, with many workers pushed out of the city and forced into long commutes that only make our traffic and parking problems more severe," he said.
His plan calls for city leaders working through the Housing Authority and the private sector to provide incentives for more jobs and affordable housing where it is needed.
He said the city is working with county government, the state's Department of Transportation, the Homeless Coalition and others to bring a "humane but clear and final end" to so-called tent cities that have emerged in parts of the Peninsula.
Tecklenburg's plans for making government better and more responsive to the people of Charleston include a performance review of city processes to determine what is and is not working well, as well as greater initiatives involving transparency of operations and an increasing implementation of technology to better serve citizens.
He said this would include expanding online offerings for businesses. For the first time ever, he said, business licenses can be acquired through the city's website and soon the building permit process can be available in "a single, seamless online system."
Tecklenburg said no part of the city is "more ready for a renaissance than West Ashley," promising tourism revenues will go to enhance and beautify the area with two future parks paid for by the accommodations tax and a Tax Increment Finance District in the planning stages to finance major streetscape and revitalization projects.
The city plans to break ground on the West Ashley Senior Center and complete a new city-sponsored West Ashley Farmers Market.
The Peninsula will benefit from the Lowline project and the splitting of the Board of Architectural Review into two separate bodies. Implementing a new Tourism Management Plan to establish reasonable limits on new events, better regulation of cruise ships, a more rational approach to parking and more.
For James Island, Tecklenburg wants better relationships and coordination between neighboring governments, tax-saving consolidation of services, and reducing emergency response times.
For Johns Island, his vision includes "strict observance of the Urban Growth Boundary to preserve the area's character," and efforts to improve and expand recreational opportunities.
Daniel Island will see street improvements, continued implementation of one-side parking and the resolution of long-standing commitments from the original Daniel Island Development Agreement, he said.
"My fellow Charlestonians, the plan I've laid out here tonight is not a small set of proposals designed to nibble away at the edges of the quality of life challenges facing our city," Tecklenburg said. "Rather, it is a practical, comprehensive strategy to make our already great city even greater by putting our neighborhoods and citizens quality of life first. And, at the same time, it is entirely in keeping with the Charleston spirit of unity and common purpose that we've shown the world over the past year."