Rising from the Ashes: Downtowns are In Again
By Cindy Landrum
Throughout South Carolina, cities and towns are focusing on their downtowns, once the lifeblood of communities, to bring people and businesses back.
“It is the only part of town that is distinctly and uniquely yours,” Moncks Corner town planner Doug Polen said. “Your downtown is the only downtown like it in the world.”
Capitalizing on that unique heritage and existing assets is key to successfully revitalizing downtown, said Jenny Boulware, manager of Main Street South Carolina, a technical assistance program service provided through the Municipal Association of South Carolina.
“There isn’t a magic wand, but there is a formula,” she said. Main Street South Carolina uses a four-point approach that includes design, organization, promotion and economic vitality.
Poster child of success
Greenville is the poster child for successful downtown revitalization.
Visit downtown Greenville today, and it’s hard to imagine that it was dying just four decades ago, a collection of vacant buildings and empty streets.
That changed when the late former Greenville Mayor Max Heller suggested turning Main Street, a lackluster four-lane thoroughfare, into a two-lane, tree-lined promenade with room for shoppers to walk to specialty shops and diners to eat at sidewalk cafes.
Then came the Hyatt. The hotel, made possible by a tricky public-private partnership that included designating the hotel lobby as a public park, anchored Main Street’s north end.
Over the years, the revitalization moved south. The Peace Center opened. Falls Park with the iconic Liberty Bridge over the Reedy River came next. Then, Fluor Field at the West End, the city’s downtown baseball stadium.
Greenville, however, isn’t the only large city in South Carolina where the central business district has undergone a dramatic shift.
Thirty years ago, Columbia’s central business district had a significant number of run-down buildings, little nightlife, few restaurants or residential units.
Now, Main Street, The Vista and the Riverfront District attract permanent residents and patrons of restaurants, bars and hotels.
But the biggest development could be the BullStreet District, a 20-year project to transform the 181-acre old South Carolina State Mental Hospital campus, one of the largest tracts of undeveloped urban land in the East Coast.
The mixed-use project will include residential, office and retail. It is also home to $37 million Segra Park, home of the Columbia Fireflies minor league baseball stadium.
In Charleston’s central business district, businesses have been hard hit by the pandemic. Vacancies have risen and the gap between rental rates and what businesses can pay has increased, according to presentations and recordings of Central Business Improvement District meetings.
Businesses that have reopened have discovered tourists haven’t returned at pre-Covid rates. The city is considering eliminating minimum parking requirements for businesses in designated commercial areas. The Central Business District Improvement Commission is considering other measures to help the central business recover, including safety enhancements and beautification.
Emphasize what’s special
“Everybody has the opportunity to emphasize what’s special about their community,” said Dianna Gracely, Simpsonville’s city administrator, who has been a part of two downtown revitalization efforts.
Gracely was city administrator in Travelers Rest when Main Street, a state highway, was a five-lane thoroughfare, and the city was a place to go through rather than go to. Main Street had fewer than 10 viable businesses.
Taking advantage of the Swamp Rabbit Trail, which runs parallel to Main Street, the city embarked on a more than $4 million plan that included streetscaping and pocket parks. The city converted the old Travelers Rest High property into a large park with an amphitheater and an open-air pavilion.
Today, Gracely is involved in the remaking of downtown Simpsonville. The city recently completed a downtown master plan. She expects the City Council to discuss the plan in March.
“The formula for a successful downtown revitalization focuses on the public spaces and how to maximize people’s experience in those spaces,” Gracely said. “That’s always consistent. What’s not consistent is the obstacles you have to overcome to maximize that experience.”
While Travelers Rest has a long, linear Main Street, Simpsonville has parallel Main Streets divided by railroad tracks. But the railroad is active. The other obstacle is the traffic volume.
“Not only is it Main Street, but it’s also Highway 14, a state highway that sees high traffic volumes. So the challenge is, how do we make all of that work together?” she said.
The downtown master plan calls for new lighting for downtown, squaring up intersections, changing traffic patterns for better flow and streetscape.
But Gracely said, “It doesn’t always have to be the big projects. It can be thoughtful little projects, too.”
Simpsonville has completed two mural projects, built public restroom facilities, and turned an alleyway into a gathering spot by adding tables and chairs.
While the city hasn’t moved forward with its downtown plans because of the coronavirus pandemic, that hasn’t stopped some developers.
A developer will convert the historic building at the corner of Main and Curtis streets that housed Burdette Hardware into a collection of restaurants and retail. Nearby, a developer has plans to turn the historic Country Store at Vaughn’s, an old-school feed-and-seed store, into restaurant, bar and market space.
“All those things are happening despite the fact we haven’t been able to move forward with our downtown plans. We feel very fortunate that investors can see that the city is coming along with these public improvements and that it’s only going to get better,” Gracely said. “Normally, you make the public spaces better and then the private investment follows, but we’re seeing it almost simultaneously, which is good because then everybody assumes the same amount of risk.”
Downtown Simpsonville has a high potential for additional development and redevelopment, according to the master plan by MKSK, a Greenville planning firm. The city could absorb between 140,000 and 280,000 square feet of private-sector space in the downtown core. The development could occur with no structured parking, the report said.
“There’s a lot of commerce happening. We just want to create more,” Gracely said.