City asks what the future holds for downtown Greenville


Stick to the plan.

It’s a strategy Greenville has used to turn downtown from a collection of vacant buildings and empty streets into a vibrant and nationally recognized model for redevelopment through effective urban planning.

It started in the late 1970s when the late former Greenville Mayor Max Heller, the patron saint of the city’s downtown renaissance, suggested turning Main Street, then a four-lane thoroughfare through the heart of the city, into a pedestrian-friendly tree-lined two-lane street where families would gather, diners would enjoy meals on sidewalk cafes, and shoppers would stroll from specialty shop to specialty shop.

Add to that a tricky public-private partnership that brought the Hyatt, and downtown’s transformation was underway.

Subsequent plans called for development to move south and then off Main Street into the five “corners” of downtown.

Progress didn’t come easy. Many of the projects that made downtown what it is today sparked controversy at the time they were built. But city officials stuck to the plan, and now downtown Greenville is a must-see for other cities that are trying to pump life into their cores.

Now, it’s time for an update since Greenville’s downtown plan is 10 years old.

There are some big questions to be answered: How can downtown continue to grow while maintaining its authenticity? How should the city’s central business district position itself in the market? How tall should buildings be? What kind of density is desired? What type of development can downtown sustain for the next 10 years?

“We’re doing a lot of planning to figure out where we are headed as a city,” said Mary Douglas Hirsch, the city’s real estate development manager. “The new downtown strategic master plan will be a roadmap for the city going forward.”

Having a vision

Downtown Greenville didn’t escape the Great Migration in the 1960s when department stores and specialty shops fled for suburban malls. Downtowns all across the country were dying, some of which still haven’t made a comeback.

What saved downtown Greenville was the vision of Heller and people like Buck Mickel, the chairman of Daniel Construction and an industry leader in Greenville and South Carolina, and Tommy Wyche, the lawyer who cobbled together deals that bookended Main Street’s development — deals that would convince the Hyatt to build in a dying downtown in a city usually too small for the national hotel chain to consider and would help turn the banks of the Reedy River in the city’s West End into a gathering place for families, artists, and visitors. What has allowed the success to continue is the commitment to a vision by city officials and community leaders who have followed.

Success, though, hasn’t been easy, and it has come with plenty of controversies.

A key to the transformation was the opening of the Hyatt in 1982. Greenville used a personal connection — the company chairman’s wife was born and raised in Greenville — to get the chain to consider building a hotel in a city that was smaller than those in which the company usually located. A complicated public-private financial partnership made it work. The city owned much of the ground floor, considered a city park. By the time the Hyatt opened with three overnight guests during a snowstorm in 1982, inflation had pushed the Greenville Commons project’s price tag from $23 million to $34 million.

The plan worked because city officials were willing to take some heat, and the city and business leaders ponied up more money.

“Nobody does public-private partnerships better than Greenville,” said Mayor Knox White.

A 1989 downtown development strategy shifted the city’s downtown development focus from office space to attracting people on weekends and in the evenings, creating a synergy that didn’t stop when office workers clocked out and left for their suburban homes.

“Mixed-use development is likely to be as economically successful or more successful for the developer as single-use development, and will definitely be more successful for Greenville in helping to create a vital and exciting city,” wrote consultant Land Design/Research Inc.

The consultants also reminded city and business leaders that change would take time. “Although it is important to have short-term goals for the city, it is also important to remember that the life of a city spans centuries. It is not always wise to expect major changes to occur in five to 10 years, because often rapid change brings with it the danger of making mistakes,” the consultants wrote.

The 1989 plan recommended the city re-examine the design of Piazza Bergamo. The plaza got a redesign, but not until a few years ago after the $100 million ONE development was completed at North Main and Washington streets, a project the city has called critical in North Main’s redevelopment.

The 1989 study also called the Reedy River and Reedy Falls a “priceless asset” and potentially Greenville’s “single most important tourist attraction.” It recommended the city remove the Camperdown Bridge, which obscured the falls, within two years.

When LDR came back to Greenville in 1997, it reported that “great progress has been made in downtown Greenville, but much more needs to be done — the real challenges lay ahead.”

But the report said the goal of removing the Camperdown Bridge was determined no longer valid after a study predicted traffic chaos if the bridge were removed.

That presented a problem. The bridge was blocking Reedy Falls, a key part of a plan to transform Falls Park into downtown’s signature piece. It was hard to sell spending $13 million on the park with public gardens and a pedestrian bridge that centered on the waterfall because few people had ever seen the waterfall.

But White, other city officials, and members of the Foothills Garden Club didn’t give up. Armed with another study that predicted minimal traffic impact, the City Council voted to tear the bridge down. The Liberty Bridge, a suspension bridge that curved away from the falls so as not to take attention away, was built.

“Reclaiming the Reedy River was so important,” White said. “We can see more clearly now when Falls Park opened, everything changed. Suddenly, the city had a significant attraction. It’s hard to imagine now downtown was once mostly boarded up buildings and dangerous.”

Retail and restaurants have replaced those boarded up buildings, and residential followed. No longer did downtown Greenville go dark after 5 p.m.

The city’s 2008 downtown master plan said that rather than diluting the strong identity of Main Street by extending its length, Greenville should create new districts that have their own geography and history. The districts, each of which lies at a critical gateway to downtown, included Heritage Green, where the library and museums are located; the Gateway District, which includes Interstate 385 and the Bon Secours Wellness Arena; Broad & River; County Square, the county’s headquarters on University Ridge; and the Warehouse District, which includes the West End, the area near the Kroc Center, and the baseball field.

Each of the districts has big projects that are either ongoing or planned. Charleston’s The Beach Company has plans to redevelop the BB&T building across from Heritage Green. In the Gateway District, there are plans to build a hotel on the former Greenville Memorial Auditorium site. In the Broad & River district, the block of South Main the Greenville News has called home since 1969 is being redeveloped, and there are plans to build a boutique hotel where the Wyche law firm is. Greenville County plans to redevelop County Square, and a slew of multifamily housing has or is being built in the Warehouse District.

What’s next?

Now, the city is looking for a new plan. It received 19 proposals and has narrowed its search down to four consultants, Hirsch said. Interviews will be held this week and the city hopes to select one of the firms by early April. The new plan, which will be compiled with public input, should be completed by the end of the year, she said.

From an urban planning standpoint, the new plan needs to include four basic principles, said Robert Benedict, director of Clemson University’s master of real estate development program.

First, there needs to be continuity of leadership and vision. Second, the city core needs to remain walkable. Third, public-private partnerships need to remain a strong component. And finally, it needs to include successful public transportation.

“Greenville needs to avoid losing its sense of character above all else,” he said.

In addition to identifying where the city needs to prioritize projects, the plan will define downtown’s position in the market, Hirsch said.

“It will look at office, retail, and residential and determine what downtown can sustain for the next 10 years,” she said.

Benedict said the city needs to avoid having a downtown with residential that becomes exclusive and homogenized.

“Mixed-use should also include an affordable housing component. There need to be incentives for developers to ensure that affordable housing is part of large mixed-use developments,” he said, suggesting property tax abatements or reduced fees. “Affordable housing is becoming a bigger and bigger problem.”

White said developing residential downtown was key. Now, he said, the city needs to focus on diversity in residential in the city’s core. He said Greenville has an opportunity to do that with city-owned land near the city’s new signature park planned in western downtown where the public works department was housed. “I think the importance of moving public works has been understated,” he said. “Maybe it wasn’t as dramatic as removing the Camperdown Bridge, but it will be just as important.”

The new downtown plan will help the city determine appropriate height and density of development for downtown and identify strategic places where height is appropriate. “Increased density is not a bad thing at all. It’s better than sprawl,” Whtie said. “But it still needs to retain the character from a design standpoint that honors our textile heritage, and it needs to be pedestrian-friendly.”

In addition, the plan will identify sites for large mixed-use developments, ensuring their connectivity to the rest of downtown. Now that future projects will have to rely less on public investments because of the end of the TIF districts, the plan will recommend new ideas and approaches to help the city prioritize the investments it can make and to encourage appropriate and desirable private developments.

“So far, we’ve done very well redeveloping downtown,” Benedict said. “I’m more concerned with the neighborhoods. We’ve got some very vulnerable neighborhoods close to downtown. I think Greenville needs to pay special attention to those.”

Benedict said the Ware/McCall neighborhood is a prime example. The neighborhood was cut in two when Academy Street was built and widened. The neighborhood links downtown with the Village of West Greenville, another development hot spot. “The linkage between the Village and downtown, how’s the city going to plan for it? Preserving that neighborhood would be a good first step.”

In addition to the new downtown master plan, the city is working on a new comprehensive plan, a downtown traffic study, and a Wade Hampton Boulevard master plan, Hirsch said.

“We’re doing a lot of planning to figure out where we’re headed as a city,” she said.

Learn more about the city’s Downtown Reborn plan here


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