By Dom Nozzi
Greenville SC — the city we moved to in May 2021 — was brought back to life over the past decades.
Before 1980, Greenville’s oversized main street had led to many abandonments, much crime, a lot of drug and prostitute activity, many vehicle crashes, and an overall flight of citizens away from what had become an awful town center.
Since then, the downtown has seen an incredible rejuvenation — so impressive that the City has won several national awards and those selling property in or near downtown BOAST about the property being near main street. The boasting about being in or near downtown was the opposite of what was happening before the main street rejuvenation. Before the restoration, people were falling all over each other to flee downtown, and the value of downtown property was plummeting.
This, in sum, is the story of how an American city can be brought back to life by reversing its century-long design direction: Designing primarily for people walking and bicycling rather than designing for happy cars. In large part, this meant undoing the century of damage done to the city by the engineers and planners the City had hired — ironically — to “fix” problems.
In 1968, citizens and community leaders commissioned a downtown development plan to help direct efforts to revive a struggling business district. The plan recommended what is now a key element of downtown — making Main Street a pedestrian-friendly environment.
Max Heller, who is known as the “Father of Modern Greenville,” was the 29th mayor of Greenville for almost a decade from 1971-1979. The sidewalk and café-lined downtown enjoyed in Greenville today is a result of Heller’s vision for the city and his European heritage. Under his guidance, Main Street was converted from a four-lane thoroughfare to a two-lane oasis complete with trees, streetlights, flowers, and green spaces.
In 1979, the city narrowed Main Street from four lanes to two (ie, gave their Main Street a “road diet”) and created angled parking. Trees and decorative light fixtures were also added, and sidewalks were widened to 18 feet, providing space for outdoor dining. The streetscape was extended from South Main into the West End and the improvements were completed in 1981.
While the framework for revitalizing downtown was in place, in 1987 community leaders contracted with Land Design/Research, Inc. (LDR) to identify additional development opportunities and create a Downtown Development Strategy. The LDR plan recommended focusing development efforts in three key areas, including the Reedy River Falls area. This was the first time the often ignored Reedy River and Reedy River Falls were identified as significant assets for downtown. The plan further suggested that future developments should open to and engage the riverfront, and removal of the Camperdown Way four-lane highway bridge was mentioned as a way to highlight the distinctive natural feature of the falls.
In the years that followed, these town center design decisions would spark a nationally-recognized rejuvenation of Greenville’s downtown.
The lesson: designing a downtown for happy people rather than happy cars is a powerful, effective way to create a healthy, thriving, lovable downtown.