Moving public works facility could be as transformational to city as removing Camperdown Bridge

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Mayor Knox White. Photo by Will Crooks

When asked what the most important event of 2017 was in the city of Greenville, Mayor Knox White had an answer that might surprise people.

Rather than name one of the many huge developments being built downtown or the focus on increasing affordable housing, White said it was moving the city’s public works to a brand-new facility on Fairforest Way.

“I think the importance of moving public works was understated,” he said. “Maybe it’s not as dramatic as tearing down the Camperdown Bridge, but it will be just as transformative.”

White recently talked to the Greenville Journal about the past and the future of downtown.

Q: What was the single most important decision made in the past 10-15 years that helped transform downtown Greenville and make it what it is today?

Reclaiming the Reedy River. We can see more clearly now that when Falls Park opened in 2004, everything changed. Suddenly, our city had a signature attraction. It’s hard to imagine now, but the West End was once mostly boarded-up buildings and dangerous. The river was barely noticed. Falls Park changed that. The park brought vibrancy and people to the streets of the West End and, in quick order, major capital investment, which continues today. Above all, the park and river give Greenville a unique identity and personality all its own.

If you think about it, the core of downtown’s success is built around, simply, trees and water. I really believe that how we stay focused on those two simple elements is a good way to measure our success going forward.

“I think the importance of moving public works was understated,” he said. “Maybe it’s not as dramatic as tearing down the Camperdown Bridge, but it will be just as transformative.”

Q: Why did Greenville succeed in revitalizing its downtown when so many other cities failed? 

I’d attribute it to good planning and great partnerships. Partnerships come easy in Greenville, but that is not the case everywhere. Our downtown is testimony to a lot of people doing their part to build a city of which we can all be proud. It’s everyone from people in the restaurant and hospitality community renovating old buildings to local developers addressing the need for the right mix of residential and office development.

On the planning side, we have a formula, and we stick to it. We recognized that’s all about having a Main Street that doesn’t go dark after 5 p.m. and on weekends. A lot of cities took a lot longer to realize that. That is why we focused so much in the early years on attracting residents to downtown. Residents ensure activity on the street after hours and on weekends. Now we have plenty of apartments (once there were few!), and now we have to focus on having the right diversity of residential. But achieving a critical mass of people living near Main Street has been crucial to our success.

All the while, the other goal has been to keep the downtown walkable and “people-focused.” This, too, sets us apart. We have filled the downtown with public art, preserved historic buildings, and done a multitude of things to make the experience of being downtown safe and pleasant. All of these things are done in the spirit of staying true to and enhancing our city’s unique personality.

Q: What are the top three challenges facing Greenville in the future, and why? 

I’d put all three under the heading of “managing our growth.” 

First, we’ve learned what all successful cities are discovering: A growing city has to work hard to keep housing affordable. It’s not only a matter of demand pushing up prices. For several decades, we have worked in partnership with many neighborhoods to remove blighted rental housing and replace it with new, affordable home ownership. These neighborhoods are much improved, but now we find a severe lack of good rentals. So we need more clean, safe rentals, and we need a wide array of home ownership at different price points. This is important because we want our city to be a place for everyone. Our tradition of public-private partnerships and our willingness to act boldly will be tested.   

Second, a growing city (fourth-fastest in the U.S.) means more people and more traffic. While we don’t own or control many of the major roadways, it’s our duty to explore smarter ways to help people move around. We are investing in new and better-synchronized traffic lights on key corridors. But the best example of what we can do about traffic congestion is the new Woodruff Road bypass. This city-designed road will parallel Woodruff and allow residents to have direct access to Costco, Magnolia Park, and other popular shopping destinations without getting on Woodruff at all. It will be ready by next fall. Supporting better public transportation is another role we will continue to play.

Third, a growing city must build more park and green space. It’s now or never for future generations. Our new park along the Reedy will make the river cleaner, expand recreation opportunities for families, and serve as a model for how we will use city-owned property to build more affordable housing. When the trucks rolled out of our old and decrepit public works facility last month, it received little fanfare. But we may well look back and see that this was an event as momentous as the removal of the Camperdown Bridge over the falls. Both opened the door to transformational change along the river and for West Greenville. Like Falls Park, the new park will offer the kind of balance we need to deal with the growth we are experiencing. 

Q: If Greenville accomplishes just one thing in 2018, what does it need to be, and why?

I say it needs to be how we make real progress in addressing the three “growth challenges” I just described.

Q: Greenville has a lot going for it. What’s missing?

I don’t think the city or the county gets high marks for public transportation. We are much improved, but not where we need to be. Greenlink is clean and efficient, but hourly bus service is not practical for people trying to get to work or anywhere else. We have to do better. Our partnership with the county is excellent, and I think we are on the same sheet of music here. The city’s new expanded trolley service can also be a template for how shorter distances may be handled in the future, at least for neighborhoods in the city.

I’d also say that the city needs to do a much better job of annexation. The city has a lot to offer to nearby neighborhoods — including better services and, in many cases, lower taxes (to their surprise). Annexation is another way of dealing with growth for everyone’s benefit.

Finally, I’d like to see even more attention paid to good architecture and design. Even with our guidelines and vetting by our citizen-led boards, too many apartments are just plain ugly or vanilla. The good news is that some more recent projects have looked better and our design staff has been more vigilant. Let’s keep challenging our builders and developers to raise the bar. Greenville should set the standard for good design in both the public and private realm.

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