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.
“…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.