Tag Archives: main street

Showing Leadership to Transform Main Street in Greenville South Carolina

By Dom Nozzi

I am surprised to have landed in Greenville, South Carolina in June 2021.

I never gave the city much thought in the past. I think, though, that I used to include the city in my occasional “comparable cities” studies when I prepared reports as a town planner for Gainesville, Florida, and wanted the Gainesville City Commission to see what similar cities were doing.

One reason I admire Greenville is that they had the mayoral leadership in the past to remove a four-lane highway bridge that blocked views and pedestrian access for the stunning Reedy Creek Falls in the town center. The highway bridge meant the City was turning its back on the glorious falls. The bridge was replaced by a much-loved pedestrian bridge (see photos).

But by far, the primary reason we fell in love with — and opted to move to — Greenville (from Asheville NC, where we lived for a few months) is that in my opinion, Greenville has created the best main street road diet transformation in the nation (see photos). Prior to the diet, it was a nasty five-laner that induced a large number of car crashes, business and residential abandonment, vacancies, prostitution, drugs, homeless problems, etc. People wanted to be as far from main street as they could.

Since the 1980 transformation, however, the opposite is now the case. Retail shops and residences are booming on Main Street, the street is regularly hosting many festivals and live music shows, the sidewalks are full of pedestrians, the tree canopy is fantastic, and it is safe and easy to ride a bicycle on the street — without bike lanes — because the narrowed, slow-speed street design properly obligates motorists to drive slowly and attentively. Today, it has become a place that most everyone in the community comes to just to hang out. It is a street where citizens know it is easy to find a sense of community. The street understandably inspires a lot of civic pride (each time I tell someone in Greenville how much we love main street, they nearly all nod in agreement).

Real estate ads have transformed in the same way that main street had transformed. Prior to the road diet, no one wanted to live near (or even visit) main street. But in the spring of 2021, we noticed when looking at real estate ads to buy a home in Greenville that every property on or near main in recent months BOASTED about how the property was on or near main street.

There is a statue on North Main St of Max Heller, who was known as the “patron saint of the city’s downtown renaissance.” Heller was the mayor of Greenville in the 70s, and heroically led the effort to bring main street back to life. He was from Vienna Austria, and recognized that main street needed to adopt the street design he knew from Europe. You would not know it today, given the community consensus for love of their main street, but Heller (like every other elected official of a US city) faced ferocious opposition from many in the city when he pushed for a main street road diet. Many assumed, ruinously, that main street needed to be a very wide roadway with abundant, free, off-street parking. That for health, downtown needed free-flowing car traffic and easy parking.

Heller knew that the opposite was the case.

As a true leader, Heller knew that to achieve greatness, a main street road diet would not be supported by all. But unlike nearly all other elected city officials in the US, he would persist in spite of severe citizen opposition. He knew that to be healthy, main street needed to be a place to drive TO rather than a place to drive THROUGH.

A town center can never compete with the suburbs on suburban terms (massive and high-speed roads, dispersed and low-density development, and abundant parking). A town center needs to leverage its strengths where it can outcompete the suburbs (these strengths correspond to what makes a town center healthy): slower speeds, human-scale dimensions, and clustered and compact development patterns. By contrast, oversized, free-flowing urban roads (what Charles Marohn calls STROADS), low-density design, and abundant parking bring the high speeds and dispersal and loss of romantic and human-scaled charm that town centers need to thrive.

Today, main street in Greenville is a testament to Heller’s magnificent leadership. Occasionally, teachers bring groups of school children to visit the Heller statue and hear the story of Heller.

Max Heller statue

“…the least effective leaders were those who followed the will of the people and the precedents set by their predecessors. The greatest [leaders] were those who challenged the status quo and brought about sweeping changes that improved the lot of the [community].”  – Adam Grant

“To achieve excellence should be a struggle.” – Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley

“To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” — Elbert Hubbard

Margaret Thatcher once said that consensus is the absence of leadership. One of my heroes – Enrique Penalosa (former mayor of Bogota) – was despised early on in his term. He enacted policies that aggressively inconvenienced cars in his efforts to make people, rather than cars, happy. Many wanted to throw him out of office. But eventually, his policies (which nearly all his citizens strongly opposed initially) resulted in visibly obvious quality of life and civic pride improvements. He went on to become much-loved and honored by most in Bogota.

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Greenville South Carolina Brought Back by a Road Diet

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.

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Can Local Government Control Which Businesses Locate on a Street?

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 26, 2002

A very common misconception about city government is that it can have a lot of control over what sorts of retail occur in various locations. In nearly all cases (in a capitalist economy such as ours), it is the private sector (business owners and property owners) who decide what sorts of businesses go in. City government plays the reactive role of having regulations in place to control how those businesses are built and operate, but really doesn’t have any say as to what businesses locate along a street. Yes, it would be wonderful if we had more interesting shops, cafes, etc. along certain streets. But government has no real ability to pick and choose what sorts of shops emerge on a street.

That being said, let me hasten to add that government DOES have a VERY powerful tool  — albeit an indirect one — with regard to what occurs along a street. As I say over and over again in my speeches and books, transportation drives land use. When countless cities widened their main street in their town center, they locked those streets into having a great many low-value, auto-oriented places and a lot of vacancies.

Why?

vacant-lots-chris-wass-derek-welteBecause big, high-speed roads are hostile for pedestrians and shoppers. Add to that the fact that it is relatively inconvenient to drive and park along town center streets compared to, say, a shopping center parking lot. What happens is completely predictable: EVERYONE shops at the shopping center and no one shops in the town center. Instead, downtown gets vacancies, low property values, pawn shops, gas stations, deadening offices, fringe activities, tattoo parlors, etc.

There is a way to turn this around, nearly overnight: If the town center builds on its strengths, it can successfully compete with the shopping center. Its strengths are a walkable, romantic ambience, sociability, and human scale. The shopping center cannot compete with such attributes, and there is a surprisingly large segment of our communities that is quite willing to patronize such walkable places — even if they are more expensive and less convenient.

The historical push by so many American cities to widen main street, and to build a bunch of town center parking lots, killed town centers because town centers were trying to compete on the auto-oriented terms of the shopping center. The shopping center will ALWAYS win such competitions with the town center on those terms – the terms that are the strength of the shopping center.

No, town center must build on its unique strengths. That is why I am completely convinced that when/if a community engages in a main street road diet (by removing ill-advised travel lanes), government will INDIRECTLY be bringing in those shops and places meatmarketwe desire. A walkable, human-scaled town center main street will inevitably deliver small, interesting, vibrant, sociable shops, cafes, etc. Businesspeople and property owners will suddenly see a healthy market that will encourage them to build such things on their property. As it is on the widened main streets, the high-speed car sewers chase such shops and experiences away. Car sewers create a very poor market for the kinds of businesses we desire.

Cities need to leverage their strength and the strength of their town center by returning their main streets to their former walkable glory.

 

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