Steve and Michelle Hill surveyed their 4,400-square-foot nest. Their baby birds had flown the coop, and suddenly, their spacious, high-end home near Five Forks didn’t make much sense.
“We wanted to downsize and get closer to the things we enjoy,” Michelle Hill says of the couple’s move from county to city. “Now we walk or take our bikes everywhere we go — The Swamp Rabbit Trail, Saturday Market, restaurants. No more Woodruff Road! An Uber ride home only takes five minutes.”
The Hills reflect a growing trend in downtown Greenville: Empty-nesters and millennials are moving in, and Gen-Xers are moving out. Since 2010, the number of 55- to 64-year-olds living downtown has jumped about 20%, and 18- to 34-year-olds have increased by 29%. By contrast, the number of 35- to 44-year-olds living downtown has dropped about 20% between 2010 and 2016.
City leaders attribute the Gen-X exit to downtown’s cost of living and limited housing for young families, both of which are countered by alluring suburban housing and amenities, as well as midcareer job opportunities elsewhere. “The city of Greenville wants to attract, keep, and retain 35- to 54-year-olds,” says Mary Douglas Hirsch, Greenville’s real estate development manager. “It’s no secret we have a lot of apartments and hotels. We want to bring the balance back, so downtown is a place where you’re living here, working here, and playing here. We want it all.”
On Aug. 26, Greenville City Council unanimously approved the new “Strategic Downtown Master Plan” to guide physical and economic growth with long-term stability that retains the feel and aesthetics of the city’s core. During his time in office, Mayor Knox White has signed off on several of these plans that consultants put together about every 10 years.
The 2019 Master Plan provides a much larger footprint of Greenville. Whereas the ’97 plan was all about Main Street, the new plan reaches far beyond. It focuses on carrying Main Street’s character to other areas with mixed-use space, a variety of housing, and streetscapes that are walkable and friendly. The multidecade plan outlines full build-outs across four districts: Buncombe & Stone, East Downtown, South Downtown, and Unity Park.
Hirsch summarizes the 65-page creation, saying, “The key points are mobility downtown, office recruitment and retention, and also investing in these four urban design areas. Through the study, the city has realized we need to work on creating a job center downtown to create more opportunities to keep people midcareer. And City Council is very focused on affordable and workforce housing.”
Top-of-market asking prices for 2018, presented by HR&A Advisors, show that downtown homes are $30 more per square foot than the rest of the city, and $60 more per square foot than those in the county. The group’s “Greenville Downtown Market Analysis,” which the Strategic Master Plan utilized, also points out that the city’s western neighborhoods, including the Village of West Greenville, are sensitive to rising rents and displacement, and low-wage employees at restaurants, hotels, and shops present a vulnerable group of residents.
The plan recommends utilizing public assets to create more opportunities for affordable housing and invest in transportation that provides greater ease of commuting for low- and moderate-income earners.
Planners predict that with continued investment, as many as 6,000 new residents could move to the greater downtown area, bringing the city’s total to 20,400 by 2028. Greenville has not housed that many downtown residents since the 1970s. The mayor, again, points to the ’97 plan.
“Then, we just wanted any housing downtown,” he explains of initial revitalization efforts. “Now the issue of our success is affordability. We’re focused on that, using city-owned property to create opportunities for us and be more aggressive. When people ask us for infrastructure and improvements, like sidewalks, stormwater, and sewer, in return, the city would require, say, a 20% set-aside for affordability.”
Both White and Hirsch are confident Greenville can find the same success with the new plan as with the ‘97 plan – the operating manual and playbook that made the city what it is today.
White closes, saying, “People talk about affordability and limitations, but when you look at what we’ve been able to do, implementing plans of the past, I have great confidence that when we put our minds to it, we can do it.”
Four Growth Area Recommendations
Buncombe & Stone District:
- Transform the Stone Avenue/Pete Hollis Boulevard intersection into a coherent downtown district.
- Create transition from large-scale urban boulevard to adjacent neighborhoods.
- Reinforce walkability from Heritage Green museums and theater.
- Transform Church Street ramps and Cleveland/Camperdown intersection.
- Create sequence of public spaces connecting to Reedy River & Swamp Rabbit Trail.
- Lead with art and public-space programming.
- Create a framework of bike and multi-use paths to parks and nearby districts.
- Formulate district-wide development patterns.
- Preserve small-scale frontage characteristic on Augusta.
- Knit neighborhoods to the park.
- Washington and Academy should evolve to connect, not separate, neighborhoods.
- Prioritize economic value of streets and mobility to downtown development.