The Reedy River is Greenville’s centerpiece, playing a critical role in downtown’s rise, fall and resurrection.
Two Bostonians opened Camperdown Mill on the east side of the river in the late 1870s. A century later, the river was a stinky cesspool in a forgotten end of downtown that changed colors based on which dye the textile plants were using. Today, the Reedy River is one of the crown jewels of the city’s successful downtown revitalization. In fact, it plays the starring role.
And as downtown’s star player, everyone has an opinion about how it should or should not be developed.
Recently, the proposed construction of a building near the historic Main Street bridge and Reedy River Falls has once again put the river at the forefront of a discussion of what role it should play in the next phase of downtown’s development.
The proposed 55 E. Camperdown Way office building has sparked conversation about how to encourage further development in what is being called downtown’s East Gateway District, while protecting the river that historically has not always been treated kindly.
After a massive fire in Boston in 1872, Oscar H. Sampson and George F. Hall journeyed south. They were looking for a mill site and they found one, a grain mill on the south bank of the Reedy. The mill was the same spot Indian trader and settler Richard Pearis established a trading post and gristmill in 1768.
Sampson and Hall leased the mill from the descendants of Vardry McBee, commonly known as the father of Greenville. In 1874, Sampson and Hall opened a cotton thread factory, which harnessed the power of the falls.
Buoyed by its success, two years later Samson, Hall & Co. opened a second, larger mill on the east side of the river. They called it Camperdown No. 2, although it ultimately came to be the main Camperdown Mill. By 1880, Camperdown was the second-largest mill in South Carolina behind only Graniteville in Aiken.
The white-fronted Camperdown Mill, which helped fuel Greenville’s rise as the textile capital of the world, operated until 1956. It was demolished three years later when Church Street was being extended to Augusta Road, cutting through the Camperdown mill village. The concrete Camperdown Bridge opened in 1960 and hid the falls.
Falls Park, a 24-acre green oasis within downtown, had its beginnings in 1967 when the Carolina Foothills Garden Club, partnering with the Greenville Planning Commission and Furman University, deeded six acres to the City of Greenville for the Reedy River Historic Park.
In the mid-1980s, an idea of building a performing arts center on the bank of the almost-forgotten river and a slumping area of downtown took hold, in large part because of a $10 million pledge from the Peace family — one of Greenville’s most prominent. The Peace Center for the Performing Arts opened in 1990.
Soon other efforts to revive the river were underway. Anna Kate Hipp became involved in the garden club’s efforts to remove the old Camperdown Bridge, which ultimately was torn down to open more area for the park. Using the campaign slogan “Free the Falls,” the Carolina Foothills Garden Club gathered enough community support for the removal of the bridge. It came down, the park was expanded and the city’s new and iconic Liberty Bridge was built. About the same time, development across the river from the Peace Center began.
Now, developers are working on projects near the river on the other side of Main Street.
Centennial American Properties is redeveloping the block of South Main Street where the Greenville News has made its home since 1969. The newspaper will relocate to a building currently under construction on a corner of the property, while the rest will be redeveloped into multifamily housing, a hotel, and office and retail space. The project is called Camperdown, a nod to the mill and village that once surrounded it, an area where the grandmother of Centennial President Brody Glenn grew up.
Centennial proposed building a four-story brick and glass office building mere steps from the historic Main Street bridge. On Nov. 3 of this year, the plan received a certificate of appropriateness from the city’s Design Review Board on the condition the project meets the city’s stormwater regulations and an easement is provided that allows public access. The DRB would still need to approve final landscaping and site design.
The small piece of wooded land sits between the river, the Bowater parking garage and Japanese Dogwood Lane/Murphy Street, which leads under the bridge to the amphitheater behind the Peace Center.
Shortly after the proposed 55 E. Camperdown Way project was introduced in September, it came under fire. Members of the Carolina Foothills Garden Club argued that the office building would be directly in the view line of those on the Liberty Bridge. “While the developer has met ‘legal regulations’ for construction under current code, the building will block the gateway arch underneath the historic Main Street Bridge and become the view from the Liberty Bridge,” Hipp and other others wrote in a recent Greenville Journal guest column.
“Now, imagine standing on the Liberty Bridge at sunset in the near future,” the garden club members wrote. “The existing trees on the far bank of the river have disappeared, replaced by a four-story building with the afternoon sun reflecting off the exterior of its façade. Gone is the tranquility and cool serenity formally encompassing our widely admired ‘view from the bridge.’”
The 55 E. Camperdown Way building wasn’t the first proposal for the Bowater property. According to Greenville Mayor Knox White, two hotels have been considered over the years, including one less than a year ago. White said they were “summarily rejected” because of a pedestrian easement to the river. The mayor also noted that the 55 E. Camperdown Way proposal was somewhat of a shock to the city because of those past rejections. “The building was a surprise. They found a way to get around the pedestrian easement,” he said.
In order for the office building to be built where Centennial proposed, the developer has asked for an exception to the city’s minimum 50-foot buffer from the river. The exception would allow the developer to use a buffer average, meaning part of the development could be inside the buffer zone but other parts would be outside it. The city has applied buffer averages to other developments in the past, including RiverPlace, a development on the other side of the river.
Glenn said at a recent DRB meeting his intent has been “to create some energy” on the side of the Reedy River that includes the parking deck next to the former Bowater Inc. building. “We’re so lucky to have the park that we have,” he said. “We also have a good bit of land in that area that can be redeveloped and help our city grow and become more vibrant.”
The city’s latest downtown master plan, completed in 2008, called for developing the Broad Street (one of the streets bordering the Greenville News site) and River Street area, what is now being called, at least informally, the East Gateway District. The development of the East Gateway District would not hinge on where or whether 55 E. Camperdown is built. The city has identified the area for growth, saying that it, along with Heritage Green County Square and two other locations, is one of five “corners” of downtown. Each “corner” has its own character and competitive advantage, the downtown plan said.
Before the DRB held its Nov. 3 meeting, members of City Council walked the site as part of one of its work sessions. “It’s one thing to look at pictures. It’s another to walk the site. That was a game-changer,” the mayor said. “The reaction to a person was that it seemed forced.”
After the DRB approval, some residents started a petition drive to express their opposition. The petition to White, City Manager John Castile and the Greenville City Council said the city “owes its downtown and regional renaissance to the existence of the Reedy River and the falls. Exploitation of the river in this manner, rather than its protection, is unacceptable.”
Calling the proposed site “sacred ground,” White said the city is trying to buy the corner where the building was proposed. “The building will not go there,” the mayor said.
White said if a building goes on the site, the city wants it to be closer to the former Bowater building. “It’s more likely than not there will be a building on the site, but not at the proposed site because that spot is too much a part of Falls Park. We will still have setback issues, but if it’s done right, you’ve got an opportunity to create a NOMA Square or ONE Plaza. It could be a draw, a magnet,” White said.
Looking at both sites, there are positives and negatives. If the 55 E. Camperdown building were built where Centennial proposes, the Bowater plaza would provide 50 percent more public space than the alternative plan. Restaurants and retail could go on its fringes, activating the area and encouraging people to gather. It could also help funnel people from that side of Main and the city’s burgeoning east side to the river.
If 55 E. Camperdown Way is built closer to the former Bowater building — where some have proposed it be located — the area closer to the bridge would remain empty; however, the building would take up the current green space between the Bowater building and the parking garage. Moreover, a bigger building could be built in the space closer to the former Bowater building than the area closer to the bridge.
The question remains: If construction of a new building is a given along this section of the Reedy River, which configuration will ultimately be more advantageous to the public, the city, business and the environment? Is it the property that eliminates green space by the Main Street bridge or one that eliminates green space closer to the Bowater building?
Hipp, who is past president of the Carolina Foothills Garden Club, is uncertain of what will happen to the proposed development on the banks of the Reedy. “Where are we? I’m not sure,” she says.
She said media reports showing an alternative site for the proposed building don’t seem to reflect “a good compromise.” “Not building anywhere would be great for me,” Hipp said.
There are other options for the site, according to Hipp and other Carolina Garden Club members in their Greenville Journal op-ed, although none of them explicitly take into account moving 55 E. Camperdown Way closer to Bowater.
One option, they said, would be to deed the small parcel of 55 E. Camperdown Way property to the city or a nonprofit organization and put it into a perpetually safe designation. The property values would be a contribution resulting in a tax credit to the donor.
Secondly, the present owner could sell the parcel to an interested party with the agreement that it would become a safe buffer to the river and never be developed, the club members said. The buyer would donate the property to the Falls Park Foundation and receive a tax credit.
Thirdly, the city could purchase the property, preserving and protecting the banks of the Reedy River in the park, they said.
The garden club has a $3 million endowment, some of which could be used to buy land to help preserve green space in the park, Hipp said. “We’re willing to do that,” she said. “We haven’t really had any concrete opportunities or proposals.”
Her vision for the park is “just to preserve what is around the area that is in question, and then I think the park will be finished.”
“We need to look to the future,” she said. “But we don’t need to lose the magic that got us where we are.”
A new boutique hotel at the current site of the Wyche P.A. law firm hopes to capture some of that magic. The Grand Bohemian Greenville is a further sign that properties along the eastern side banks of the Reedy and along Falls and Broad streets are about to potentially experience a transformation about as significant as the one that gave birth to RiverPlace.
Grand Bohemian developer Richard Kessler, chairman and CEO of The Kessler Enterprise Inc., said in a recent interview he chose the Reedy River location for the boutique hotel because of the city’s vibrancy — and promise.
“There are a lot of cities Greenville-size and larger we could choose,” Kessler said during an interview in Savannah, where he is working on redeveloping the historic Georgia Power Plant Building into a waterfront mixed-use entertainment complex with hotel, food and beverage, retail and entertainment components.
But people who have gone through Greenville, done business or have friends here “would literally talk to me every month and say ‘Richard, you need to have a hotel in Greenville, South Carolina.’”
After about three or four years of hearing that, Kessler decided to investigate. “I liked what I saw,” he said. He gained insight into Greenville, including its development projects and its politics – “all positive things,” Kessler said.
“That further interested me,” he said. “The other thing I liked is I liked the looks of it. It looked like it was healthy. It was clean. It was well organized. I heard good reviews about the political structure.”
He also cited large industries in the area, including BMW.
The Wyche P.A. law firm’s site at 44 E. Camperdown Way “really caught my eye,” he said. “When I saw it, I said, ‘Oh my gosh. This really encourages me to do it, because I think we can do something extremely special and create an iconic location here.’”
“Where else can you go, have waterfalls in the center of the city and have a location spread out facing the waterfalls?” Kessler said. “And you think of all the social things, the travelers and the weekend romances that could happen right there on the waterfalls. It can be incredible.”
He plans an outdoor bar at the hotel that overlooks the falls.
“Where else in the Southeast can you go enjoy that?” Kessler said. “I don’t know of a single place. It’s so unique.”
In the end, everyone seems to agree that they want the Reedy, and Greenville, to remain unique.
At the DRB meeting, Glenn said it’s important to establish a “bigger, more active Falls Park” by connecting buildings and public space, while White said the city must keep its sights on its downtown urban plan. (Editor’s note: Please see Mayor White’s op-ed on page 4.)
“Greenville residents are really attuned to the whole issue of growth and wanting us to make sure we get it right, and that plays out on a lot of issues, not just this one,” White said. “We never want to be in a position of being anti-growth. We need to get it right.”