Lessons from Greenville

I RECENTLY TOOK A TRIP TO THE SOUTHEAST, VISITING WITH PLACEMAKERS AND URBAN DESIGNERS IN ASHEVILLE, GREENVILLE, CHARLOTTE, AND CHATTANOOGA AND OBSERVING EACH CITY. THIS IS ONE PART OF A SERIES EXPLORING WHAT THOSE CITIES ARE DOING RIGHT, WHAT THEY ARE DOING WRONG, AND WHAT WICHITA CAN LEARN FROM THEM.

By Alex Pemberton


Greenville, South Carolina does not have an impressive skyline. In fact, it is difficult to even locate the downtown driving in without prior knowledge of the city or a GPS navigator. And yet, Greenville boasts perhaps the best mid-sized downtown in the entire country, because it understands that cities are best experienced at eye level. 

The story of Greenville is a story of consistent, competent, and courageous leadership. It is a story of understanding its assets and a deliberate approach to leveraging them. It is, above all, a story of the power of urban design to positively transform a community. 

Reimagining Greenville

Before I left for this trip, I re-read my copy of Reimagining Greenville: Building the Best Downtown in America. It was written by local author and PR-man John Boyanoski, based largely on the contributions of long-time mayor Knox White. White was first elected mayor in 1995 and has since been re-elected to five additional four-year terms, as Greenville lacks term limits, making White the longest-serving mayor in the city's history. The book details Greenville's history and the trials and tribulations along the way as White and his predecessors worked to build one of the most livable cities in the country.

Greenville, like most cities in the Upstate region, grew in its early years on the strength of the textiles industry. Cotton grown in the surrounding areas was shipped to Greenville, where mills along the Reedy River turned it into cloth and linens. The textile industry continued to power the city's economy through the middle of the 20th Century, when the forces of globalization hit Greenville hard. National trends in favor of suburbanization left its downtown vacant and moribund, further undercut by the rapid closing of textile mills in the 1960s and '70s. 

Greenville understood that the textile mills would not be coming back. No amount of subsidy or economic development efforts would counter the macroeconomic trends at play. They had to radically rethink what Greenville was, and what it could be. 

Refocusing Downtown

The first moves toward a great downtown were seen during the term of Mayor Max Heller, who presided over Greenville for much of the 1970s. When Heller took office, Main Street was a four-lane thoroughfare designed to move cars quickly past the boarded-up historic buildings to new offices and shops on either side of the city. Heller was a Jewish native of Vienna, fleeing at the age of nineteen as the Nazis occupied Austria in 1938. It was with that perspective that he sought to remake Main Street in the image of great European villages. 

Under Heller's leadership, Greenville reduced Main Street from four lanes to two, widening sidewalks and adding streetlights, green spaces, and flower planters. This brilliant foresight is apparent still today, with a wonderfully walkable Main Street corridor where people are put first -- I spent about six hours along Main Street during my time in Greenville and never once saw a car travelling faster than twenty miles per hour. 

The leadership of Max Heller, who first envisioned Greenville's urban renaissance, is commemorated with a statue and plaza downtown.
The leadership of Max Heller, who first envisioned Greenville's urban renaissance, is commemorated with a statue and plaza downtown.

Heller was followed by Bill Workman, who served from 1981-1995 and continued the focus on revitalizing Main Street and Greenville's downtown. Workman's greatest accomplishments, though, were his efforts to attract new and diverse industries to Greenville. An economic developer by training, Workman faced the accelerating decline of the textile industry; importantly, he recognized a strong downtown as vital to the city's efforts to reposition and grow its economy. 

As Workman's tenure came to a close in the mid-'90s, Main Street had seen great progress, but downtown as a whole was far from vibrant, with many areas -- particularly around the Reedy River and to the south and west of its banks -- still places to avoid after dark. Downtown revitalization continued, and in many ways accelerated, with the election of Knox White in 1995. 

White had served on the Greenville City Council from 1983 to 1993 before campaigning for mayor under the vision of creating "the most beautiful and livable city in America." Though a lawyer by training, White has a great passion and competency for urban design. Reimagining Greenville details in great depth the challenges and triumphs White and his collaborators have experienced in transforming Greenville's downtown into a truly remarkable, unique place -- from the then-controversial tear-down of the Camperdown Bridge, which towered over and hid what is now the beautiful and iconic Falls Park, to the recruitment of Mast General Store to anchor Main Street and draw more retailers, to the development of public art programs and a new minor-league baseball stadium.

Greenville on the Ground

It was with this background knowledge that I was able to augment my first-hand observation and experience of Greenville. Most of the photos I took were on an early-morning walk; by ten o'clock, the sidewalks were packed and teeming with life. Below is a photo series of the urban design details that make downtown Greenville great:

Critical Factors in Greenville's Success

It is important to understand that each of these features and details work in tandem with each other -- it is not enough simply to plop sculptures around a downtown, or add a bunch of trees. Greenville's incredible downtown is the result of an adherence to principles, a holistic vision, and the courage to properly implement. 

Proper Principles

Greenville's transformation started -- and is maintained to this day -- with the guiding principle that downtown is for people; that quality of life is paramount, and can be defined and achieved.

What distinguishes the city is a laser-focus on quality of life. We care about the aesthetics. We don’t want the city to be a clutter of crazy signage and asphalt parking lots. Instead we build new parks and green space, rehabilitate our older commercial areas, and make downtown the most walkable, people-focused Main Street in America. We are determined to keep our city and neighborhoods beautiful, livable, and I might add, authentically Greenville.

- Mayor Knox White, The Greenville News | May 26, 2017

Consistency

Greenville's current mayor has served for nearly a quarter-century, and carries clear ties to the visions of prior leaders. As a result, Greenville has sustained a half-century focus on downtown redevelopment and quality of life. While Wichita's term limits forbid such longevity, a lack of consistent leadership visions across terms has held it back. Think of what downtown Wichita would be like today without the Mayans years thwarting prior progress with WaterWalk and other projects.

Courage

Greenville first undertook downtown revitalization in an era in which it seemed to make little practical sense; the entire country was suburbanizing, and the conventional wisdom was that downtowns were obsolete. Many of the projects necessary to its revitalization were contentious, if not downright unpopular -- narrowing Main Street to two lanes, the Camperdown Bridge removal, the process of luring the Greenville Drive and building Fluor Field. Even without term limits offering political urgency, Greenville's leadership put principle before polling and held strong to achieve what was best for the city. 

An Active City Government

Like Wichita, Greenville is a conservative city in a conservative state. Mayor White is a Republican, and downtown revitalization has been achieved without tax increases or bonding. Yet, Greenville is distinct in that its city government has played an active role in setting the stage for revitalization. It has strategically purchased critical buildings and sites, even today land-banking a large area to the west of downtown, in order to ensure proper development. This is the difference between civic assets being filled with uses that enhance their surroundings or being filled with call centers.

Community-Led, City-Supported

To hear the Greenville Story would lead some to think that the city evolved as a result of a string of successful silver bullet projects by a visionary City Hall. Yet that is far from the full story. Nearly every major project, and every icon for which the city is now known, was initially led by community members. Greenville's greatest strength is their ability to recognize great ideas and support them with the full weight of the public and civic sectors. 

Falls Park, capped off nearly a decade-and-a-half ago with the dedication of the Liberty Bridge, was set in motion in 1967 when the Carolina Foothills Garden Club reclaimed 26 acres along the river, pulling weeds and beautifying the area. The Mice on Main, now a major tourist activity, was conceived by a high-schooler before being championed by the mayor. The revitalization of Main Street -- the silver bullet that enabled all the others -- could not have happened without visionary, pioneering business owners and restaurateurs who took risks individually and organized collectively to bring the corridor back to life.

Get the Streets Right, First

The first physical step to Greenville's downtown renaissance was the reconfiguration of Main Street from four lanes to two. It was an aggressive move, fundamentally changing its use from thoroughfare to a place for people. It is that configuration, which slows traffic and creates a pedestrian-friendly environment conducive to street life and sidewalk cafes, that is the foundation for Main Street's success.

Nail It, Then Scale It

For the first four decades of Greenville's efforts to revitalize downtown, its sole focus was on the Main Street corridor. They did not attempt to create centers of activity or spur redevelopment by developing sites elsewhere. They worked on Main Street until it was the greatest street in the country. Only within the past decade has development and civic investment moved off Main to surrounding streets and sub-districts. 

High Standards

Greenville has never ascribed to the belief that something is better than nothing. The building that now houses the Mast General Store sat vacant long after momentum for downtown revitalization had been realized; but rather than allow its use as a nightclub, discount store, or any of the other various proposals that came in through the years, the city held out until it found the perfect user. Mast was the first major retailer on Main Street, proving the market and drawing additional retailers. Had the city jumped at its first offers, downtown likely would be decades away from where it is today.

These high standards continue to be reflected by one of the most stringent design review boards in the country, leading to exceptional quality of new construction apparent throughout the city's core. 

Diligent Development

Because of the laser focus on Main Street, Greenville ensured that development happened in its proper order. The city had long held a large parcel along the west bank of the Reedy River, nearly identical in size and position as Wichita's west bank catalyst site that is now the River Vista project; but rather than attempting to use the site to spur development out of thin air, Greenville continued to hold it until the market was in a place where it could be developed with impressive, mixed-use buildings. The project now known as RiverPlace did not begin until 2003 and finished only within the past couple years -- a fifteen-year-long development that is now Greenville's most iconic. This theme of development -- not attempting to spur critical mass, but patiently capitalizing upon it -- has permeated throughout Greenville's downtown. 

Each of the critical success factors in Greenville's downtown development initiative coalesced with the RiverPlace project, which now stands as the city's most iconic vista along the river.
Each of the critical success factors in Greenville's downtown development initiative coalesced with the RiverPlace project, which now stands as the city's most iconic vista along the river.

Takeaways from Greenville

In many ways, the difference between Greenville's downtown and Wichita's is the difference in vision, principles, and courage. 

Decades ago, Max Heller decided to turn Main Street into a place people go to, rather than a place people go through. The two mayors who followed maintained and escalated that vision.

Today, it can often take up to fifteen minutes by car to traverse the 1.3-mile stretch of Main from College Street past Fluor Field; yet, it is vibrant and lively.

Trees and flowers are expensive to install and even more costly and laborious to maintain; yet, Greenville recognizes their essential nature and considers their value above their cost as part of a quality streetscape and inviting urban environment.

When the removal of the Camperdown Bridge was first proposed, it was widely mocked and ridiculed -- traffic calamity was predicted as a result; yet, Mayor White stuck to the vision and had the courage to see it through, with Falls Park now appearing on every other postcard from Greenville.

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As Wichita seeks to redevelop its downtown, it should familiarize itself not only with the results of Greenville's transformation, but with its process -- and what was necessary to achieve it. 

That means that our version of Main Street -- Douglas Avenue -- cannot be all things to all people. It cannot simultaneously be a thoroughfare and an emergency response route and a trucking corridor and a vibrant shopping street and a prestigious address. We must have the leadership and political will to put people first -- even if it means it will take longer to drive from Washington to Delano.

It means Wichita must show similar vision and courage in reimagining the fundamental nature of how downtown and its street network functions. Wichita cannot allow important sites to remain underutilized because its car-centric streets fail to support urban activity.

It means Wichita must have the patience to develop its downtown in the proper order. Greenville did not get where it is overnight; it has been a fifty-year process. Wichita cannot sacrifice critical sites on an altar of undue haste. It cannot afford to limit the potential of its riverfront and other important areas simply because certain parcels have been declared "catalyst" sites. It must focus on developing critical mass by leveraging fabric buildings and second-tier sites, then capitalize when the market is truly ready for prime sites to be developed to their fullest potential. Wichita cannot allow important civic assets to become victims of the private-sector need for immediate and short-term returns. 

It means Wichita cannot afford leadership that will not maintain and accelerate a vision for downtown revitalization. It cannot afford leadership that cannot itself define quality of life, or believes that downtown is ready to carry on without sustained effort from the public sector.

Greenville shows that downtown is critical to quality of life, and that work to improve a city's downtown and quality of place is never done.

And most importantly, Greenville shows what is necessary to get there.