There is no better example of the challenges of growth than the recent debate over whether an office building should be allowed on the edge of Falls Park. It speaks to one of the fundamental rules of good urban planning: design for people first, and then for buildings.
Greenville’s consistent observance of this rule is the secret of our success. In the 1970s our Main Street was narrowed from four lanes to two, sidewalks were widened and the now-magnificent trees were planted. Nearly 30 years later, the Camperdown bridge was removed to reclaim the majestic waterfall and the neglected Reedy River. Suddenly, after decades in the shadows, the river and the falls became the centerpiece of the city, and an extraordinary pedestrian suspension bridge became the emblem of our “people first” urban design strategy.
These bold actions transformed our downtown, and set the stage for the redevelopment we have today. A pleasant and safe urban environment encouraged the return of residential development, so critical to establishing a downtown that doesn’t shut down after 5 pm. Well-designed public plazas all along Main Street invite people to meet, talk, rest or gather. Even large-scale private projects, from the early Hyatt complex to the renovated Westin Poinsett, Riverplace and so many others, were all carefully planned to fit the context of a walkable, human-scale downtown.
With so many new apartments, hotels and office buildings springing up so fast, we are constantly tasked to make sure the new growth fits into our unique and successful formula for redevelopment.
City Council has responded to this challenge by adopting new architectural guidelines for apartments (that clearly need to be made even more robust!) and has also authorized a sweeping update of the design guidelines for all downtown building facades and public spaces. Our dedicated citizen-led Design Review Board engages developers in a positive and constructive conversation about quality, but it also has not hesitated to send some projects back to the drawing board to get a better result. The new guidelines, after extensive public input, will give them badly needed additional tools and authority to safeguard our urban design standards.
All of these tools, however imperfect, reflect our core value to put people first!
That means maintaining our welcoming sidewalks by paying special attention to what’s at eye level on the first floor of all new buildings. It means assuring easy pedestrian access and safeguarding open vistas to key attractions. It also means remembering that our downtown is defined by the quality of Falls Park and our grand trees on Main Street. All development, public and private, should complement these signature features.
The new 55 E. Camperdown Way office building as originally proposed would have detracted from our river vista and removed for all time the trees that conspicuously form a natural green connection between people on Main Street and the park. It is the city’s desire to preserve this link by buying the site, enlarging the footprint of Falls Park and (in the words of Harriet Wyche) our “oasis in the heart of the city.”
As more change comes to downtown in 2017, we must continue to put a “thumb on the scale” for quality as each new project is presented. But more than that, we must continue in the Greenville tradition of taking bold steps to shape our city in fundamental ways to keep it green and vibrant. The next major project is a new 60-acre park along the river, designed for people of all ages and means. It will improve the quality of the river and dramatically enlarge the open green space in the heart of our downtown. We owe this to the next generation.
If we are intentional about how we grow and remain committed to our people-first urban planning strategy, we can continue to be the most beautiful and livable city in America.
Knox White is the mayor of Greenville, S.C.