How the Design Review Board Urban Panel has shaped downtown Greenville

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Aerial photography by Pro Bros Productions

The aesthetic of Greenville’s celebrated downtown is no accident.

The massing of buildings, block patterns, pedestrian-only streets, green areas, the materials and colors used on new construction and renovations — each element since the 2000 Design Guidelines for the C-4 Central Business District were created has been approved by the City of Greenville Design Review Board Urban Panel before it existed outside of a rendering or architectural drawing.

The exterior designs of residential and commercial projects in the C-4 district (CBD) and the West End Preservation Overlay District, from drive-thru ATM awnings to 800-unit apartment buildings, must be approved by the five-member, volunteer panel before the projects get underway. And for the DRB panelists, the responsibility of approving, recommending changes, or denying the applications is not taken lightly. In essence, they are the gatekeepers for what Greenville will look like in the future.

“My first priority is to assure that the project abides by the design guidelines, first and foremost,” says DRB Urban Panel chairwoman Carmella Cioffi, a licensed architect with 25 years of experience. “Secondly, as a design professional and a resident of the City, to evaluate what I see and give my opinion, based on my professional training and experience, as to how a design can respect Greenville’s rich architectural history, while, at the same time, looking forward to the future of Greenville. We are very lucky to have a wide range of expertise on the board, architects, artists, developers, and preservationists.  With this mix of experience I feel that we have a great chance of doing our part to help the City continue to move forward while respecting and preserving our past.”

The visual appearance of the Link Apartments at the corner of River and Rhett streets as they were proposed in August 2014 motivated West End resident Danielle Fontaine to speak at the monthly public hearing of the DRB. As a result of her input and many others’, changes to the project were made specifically on the Rhett Street side, opening the street-level units up to the sidewalk and adjusting some of the step-backs in the balconies to create more visual interest than a solid wall.

And Fontaine continued to attend meetings, giving her opinion on the applications presented from the standpoint of a visual artist and one who’d previously lived in various cities around the world and studied architecture in Montreal. She eventually was invited to join the panel.

“I knew what I was getting into,” she says.

Fontaine says she remembers early on in her tenure of almost three years on the panel that many of the multifamily projects that have now been built around Academy Street were presented for initial approval but looked more suburban, like something that might be built on Pelham Road.

“They didn’t have the city feel, and that was one of the things early on that we had to remind people of,” she says. “This is the city. We’re trying to get an urban feel to Greenville, and our architecture needs to reflect that.”

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, she says.

The Grand Bohemian Hotel project, for instance, was first presented to the panel with a design inspired entirely by national park architecture. And while the hotel, planned to break ground this spring, sits on Falls Park on the Reedy, it is also situated in the middle of the city.

The compromise, which has been a process over the past two years, was to allow the architect to keep the romantic, rustic feel that would contrast with many of the other nearby modern hotel projects while streamlining the shapes and changing the materials to give it a more modern appeal.

“You know that there’s a demand for that kind of more romantic architecture, but you know that it has to fit in town also,” Fontaine says.

Which brings up one of the more complicated aspects of sitting on the DRB and trying to assess whether projects meet the written guidelines:

“You can have all the guidelines in the world,” Fontaine says, “but every site is different, and you have to take into consideration unique aspects of the site also.”

Determining the appropriateness of a design for each unique location requires the panelists to compare the project with the guidelines, and then look at the surrounding buildings, the walkable areas nearby, and the practicality of the proposed materials, for instance. Often the panel will request to see physical samples of the construction materials before approving their usage.

“As someone once said, the devil is in the details,” Cioffi says. “One of the things that makes Greenville’s architectural fabric so special is the detail. The depth of window jambs create a shadow line, the brickwork details create visual interest, the proper proportion and transition from one material to another enhances overall composition. These things are what create a rich tapestry and to not encourage this type of design would be a detriment to what the City of Greenville has worked so hard to restore and protect.”

Fontaine further explains the attention to detail.

“At the Design Review Board we are not supposed to be really concerned with particular architecture styles, but how well does it work for a city,” Fontaine says. “There are many possible looks to urban. We try not to dictate styles but dictate aspects. How will it work with the pedestrians in the city is always what feels the most important to me, and how does it relate to the surrounding buildings also.”

 

(source: Greenville Downtown Design Guidelines)

Most of the local architects submitting designs to the city are well versed in the guidelines, but occasionally they’ll push the envelope, Fontaine says, which leads to lively discussion during meetings.

One of the several local architecture firms who has helped shape downtown Greenville through its projects, McMillan Pazdan Smith Architecture (MPS), has invested in the city’s overall efforts to create a sense of place through thoughtfully designed mixed-use developments that contribute to the overall appeal of the CBD.

A key example is McBee Station, for which MPS considered the historic character of the downtown architecture and used a warehouse and historic mill approach to break up the overall mass of the building and maintain a pedestrian scale along the McBee Avenue facade.

“As architects, our legacy outlives us, so we must be good stewards of the influence we have on our city,” says Joe Pazdan, principal in charge of MPS. “The guidelines continue to evolve, but they give us all broad boundaries to work within as we design enduring projects that will impact generations of Greenville residents.”

MPS leadership is also regularly involved in advising on the design guidelines and other city organizations.

“When we started our firm decades ago, we made a point of locating our office downtown in order to have a role in the growth and health of our city,” Pazdan says. “Since then, we’ve consistently invested in our people, spending time serving on planning and zoning boards, the DRB, and the GLDC [Greenville Local Development Corp.].”

More often than not, however, it’s architects from out of town, like for Link and the Grand Bohemian, who don’t always adhere to the guidelines for various reasons. Sometimes those projects are so far removed from Greenville’s design culture that they will result in a unanimous denial from the panel, but other times, the architects are bringing in designs that would complement surrounding buildings and introduce new ideas to the city.

“We need to be trying different things,” Fontaine says. “We need to modernize ourselves in various ways, so getting ideas from outside our own local architects is good, too.”

The guidelines for the CBD also include areas of special conditions, such as the West End Historic District and Court Square District, because they have unique historical or cultural significance. Guidelines for those areas are different.

A recent example that sparked public discussion was the proposed Diner 24 sign for the former Charlie’s Steakhouse location on Coffee Street. The proposed sign featured exposed light bulbs similar to the Warehouse Theatre sign that had been installed in the West End within the previous year. The DRB denied Diner 24’s application for the “Route 66-style” sign, citing the different guidelines for Main Street verses the West End.

When the panel makes a decision that people don’t like, its members hear about it. And they welcome feedback, especially during the public hearings when residents have a platform to impact the decision. Fontaine says that sometimes people will comment and have a clear understanding of the whole process and all of the determining factors, but not always.

“Some people are only into looks and don’t notice so much how things actually function in the city,” she says. “And we learn from what people tell us, because every once in a while they look at it from a perspective that we hadn’t considered.”


The City of Greenville Design Review Board Urban Panel meets for its public hearing at 4 p.m. every first Thursday of the month on the 10th floor of City Hall. In addition to Fontaine and Cioffi, current members are Robert Benedict, Mitchell “Mitch” Lehde, and Bogue Wallin.

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