Case Study: Reimagining Our Downtown, How Greenville SC is Building One of the Best in America

Clark Byron

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

Wednesday morning’s Critical Issues presentation by HunterMaclean featured the successful and now famous revitalization efforts in Downtown Greenville, South Carolina, and its mayor, Knox White. White, the featured presenter at the seminar held at Savannah Technical College, said, “We’ve worked very intentionally with planners to create a great city.” And a great city they did make.

Founded in 1831, Greenville emerged from its former identity of Pleasantburg, which had its history in the exchange of land with the Cherokee Indians after the Treaty of 1763, which ended the French and Indian War.

Throughout the late 19th Century and the first two-thirds of the 20th, little Greenville was widely known as the “Textile Center of the World.” The national economic downturn of the 1960s and early 1970s saw the vast majority of America’s manufacturing centers fall into disuse, as foreign competition in both low-cost goods and cheap labor sent US manufacturing jobs overseas, essentially emptying American industrial centers, leaving vacant factories and jobless cities to languish in the dust and wind. Along with the industry went the commerce. Downtown Greenville was the retail center of the region, but with no jobs in the urban core, residents began moving outward to the suburbs where shopping malls sprouted up, sucking all the retail business out the City’s historic urban center.

With the loss of manufacturing jobs and retail activity, blight quickly devoured the once vital Downtown Greenville – a phenomenon seen in virtually every American city, great and small, during the Cold War era. While many much larger industrial centers sat in ruins until the late 1980s and even the early-to-mid 1990s, (some still do), Greenville did not take their misfortunes lying down. In the 1970s, City leaders began envisioning a downtown revitalization of the small, historic city that would eventually bring it into a whole new world prominence, one that would exceed even its previous glory days as the world’s textile Mecca.

Today, Greenville, with an urban population of nearly 62,000, is known for what it is, rather than what it produced. In the days of the industrial revolution, one could see the best qualities of Greenville in any part of the world, simply by opening a crate of fabric manufactured in one of its legendary mills. Today, the only way to enjoy the bounty of Greenville is to go there.

The Downtown Renewal that was envisioned by City leaders in the 1970s and launched under the administration of then Mayor Max Heller, focused on Main Street, improving its streetscape by renewing and updating its look and feel. Soon, public/private partnerships sprouted like wildflowers, as enthusiasm for the revitalization of downtown and its limitless potential spread to developers near and far. Soon, these partnerships would establish many commercial and public anchors on the Downtown area, creating the strong underpinnings of a world-class city that would become the pride of its state, and the envy of many larger, older cities that simply could not pull it together.

As Mayor Knox White spoke Wednesday, the story of Greenville’s auspicious, well-planned, and intentionally-executed comeback unfolded before a large audience at Savannah Tech. Mayor Knox (R), took office in December of 1995. While the Downtown revitalization project was in full swing by then, there was still plenty of work to be done, and the mantle would fall to the new mayor to carry the legacy of urban regeneration to its zenith.

Former Mayor Max Heller was an Austrian immigrant. He brought a vision colored with a European flair of a peaceful, very walkable and inviting public appeal. Heller hailed from such a place where ancient European cities that date back the Roman Empire, now replete with historic statuary, sculpture, art and design brought people out of their dark dwellings and into the bright public square. Knox said that such art, appealing to the City’s rich history and culture, is also key to a fully-revitalized downtown, as is walkability, comfort amenities and public safety.

It’s natural that a sizable segment of the population would be skeptical at first. Having seen nothing but deterioration and loss over the previous two or three decades, what remained of the past seemed irrelevant and useless, and the prospects for the future, all but hopeless. But enough of the right people saw a vision of a city once built on its ability to provide a simple, one-dimensional living through its primary industry, transition into a modern, dynamic and cultured city built on a greatly enhanced quality of life that is supported by a rich and diverse local economy.

Knox emphasized the importance of public buy-in for such renewal, especially in a municipality with little treasure to invest in remaking their once thriving city into the jewel it has now become. Public/private partnerships manifested themselves in the form of commercial real estate development, attracting businesses to locate or relocate there, eventually spawning no fewer than three new-business incubator organizations that focus on innovation, entrepreneurship and keeping the genius and its bountiful rewards local.

As entire blighted areas were torn down and removed; as valuable, usable pieces of the City’s rich history were restored and repurposed; as new development brought industry, entertainment, commerce and professional sports to the city; the vision of a new and magnificent Greenville spread like a fever. Knox said that in addition to the establishment of public/private partnerships with commerce, industry, philanthropy and nonprofit service organizations, the second key was to develop the spaces of the city as mixed-used facilities wherever possible.

Most redeveloped or newly-created public spaces are designed with versatility in mind. A new Minor League baseball stadium serves as a park, concert venue and public event space when baseball isn’t active there. An old waterfall that once lay at the heart of the region and served as the most popular public gathering place until textile manufacturing made it dangerously polluted, is once again the most popular public gathering place where citizens and visitors alike can enjoy the clean, tranquil ambiance of the old waterfall.

The bridge that was removed was a fixed, traffic carrying bridge.  It was replaced by a beautifully designed suspension walking bridge. Falls Park, the centerpiece of Downtown Greenville, attracts many thousands each year to its glistening, babbling natural beauty, right in the heart of the city.

Knox said he regarded the founder of Savannah and the Colony of Georgia, General James Oglethorpe, as a hero and a master city planner. Savannah, which Oglethorpe laid out with vision and great care, is America’s first planned city. The Oglethorpe Plan, as it is still called, focused around 13 original public green spaces called squares. Oglethorpe’s purpose for placing these squares in close proximity to each other and the vital amenities and operations of government and commerce, was to create a culture of neighborhood, brotherhood and community. It was to foster personal and business relationships, and the overall enrichment of community involvement.

Knox said that philosophy pervaded every decision that was made in the redevelopment process – to bring people together, to promote cooperation and community, to expand the common wealth and serve the greater good.

Careful planning of even the smallest details of streetscape, buildings, the marriage of the old with the new, the creative use of old landmarks and amenities and the strategic placement of new ones, caused the new city to take shape like magic. Only, it wasn’t magic. It was management – management on the part of everyone involved, especially the City’s visionary and mobilizing Mayor Knox White.

“A good tradition of collaboration and culture plays out in the local economy and the revitalization of downtown,” Knox said Wednesday. He spoke in the present tense because, while Downtown Greenville is already the crème dela crème of American cities of every size, the work is never truly finished. From the original visioning tasks to the establishment of new public/private partnerships to the development or renewal of every kind of real estate, the possibilities are endless, and so is the work.

The fascinating account of how Downtown Greenville, S.C. became the envy of every American city is detailed in Knox’s 2013 book, “Reimagining Greenville: Building the Best Downtown in America.” which he co-wrote with Greenville journalist, John Boyanoski. The book, now in its second printing, is published by History Press, Charleston, S.C. & London. While it reads like the great American success story it is, there’s no question that it is a true-to-life textbook and must-read for urban planners in this age of universal revitalization.