By Dom Nozzi
Greenville SC — the city we moved to in June 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 astonishing 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.
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, implementation began on a new streetscape plan, which included narrowing Main Street from four lanes to two and creating 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 Bridge was mentioned as a way to highlight the distinctive natural feature of the falls. In the ensuing years, these ideas would come to fruition and help create what is now a centerpiece of Greenville’s downtown.
A transportation consultant and colleague of mine gave me additional insight into the history I provided above. He noted that while the main Street is a great story, there are 10 large parking garages on the downtown grid, within 3 blocks east or west. The “B” Streets feeding these garages, he noted, are very slow to mature into even average walkability. When will the parking demand diminish, he asked?
Hearing these thoughts, I let him know that I am fully and painfully aware of how Greenville has a long, long way to go to engage in an essential reform of its transportation system.
The City — while taking bold steps that nearly all other US cities are unable to take due to lack of wisdom or political courage — has barely scratched the surface on crucial reforms needed. After moving here, I immediately noticed that while main street has wonderfully walkable urbanism, it is a tiny sliver of urbanism in a downtown that has been excessively given over to enabling motor vehicles — thereby degrading walkability, bikeability, retail health, and residential health.
As my colleague indicated, the City does not get it regarding parking. I’ve spoken with the mayor and a number of residents, and while the mayor openly supports road dieting for near term and long term projects, he seems opposed to on-street parking (a great many streets suitable for on-street parking do not have it) and he also seems to strongly oppose — tragically — priced on-street parking.
There are many roads in town center Greenville that are oversized “stroads” (oversized roadways that also try to be streets, but fail as both a road and a street).
Each is in crying need of a diet: Augusta, Pete Hollis, McDaniel, Dunbar, Academy, Stone, Buncombe, Wade Hampton, Rutherford, Richardson, Poinsett, Pleasantburg, Laurens, Mills, and Church.
A significant obstacle for all South Carolina cities is that the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) owns nearly all roads, and SCDOT has only two objectives: maximizing motor vehicle speeds and maximizing motor vehicle volumes – such objectives are deadly for the health of a city.
Given the above, I’d say the top three transportation objectives for Greenville are taking ownership of many roads owned by SCDOT, road diets for the 14 oversized stroads, and Shoupian parking reform (which emphasizes properly priced on-street parking).
I have a growing sense, however, that like nearly everywhere else, even Greenville has passed the point of no return on transportation. Barring an unprecedented economic collapse, there is no turning back on the self-perpetuating downward spiral we’ve spent several decades getting ourselves in regarding transportation.