If you’re an urban planner, elected official, or real estate developer interested in redevelopment at a local level, Reimagining Greenville: Building the Best Downtown in America is the book for you.
Home to 70,000 residents, Greenville is a small city nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in western South Carolina that was once known as the textile capital of the United States. In love with the automobile, Americans in the 60’s and 70’ were suddenly driving more than they were walking, and shopping malls began to pop up on the outskirts of cities. Migration to the suburbs followed, and like many downtown districts throughout the country, Greenville became hollowed out and unsafe.
While most American cities turned their backs on their downtowns, Greenville chose a different path. The city’s leadership reimagined their downtown, and for the better part of the past four decades, it has consistently invested in the city’s historic business district. As a result, Greenville was recently recognized as the #6 Best City in the U.S., according to Conde Nast Traveler’s 2020 Readers Choice Awards.
Reimagining Greenville: Building the Best Downtown in America is a case study in urban redevelopment. The small Southern city was not an overnight success story, but it is one of the finest examples of urban reinvention in the United States. This inspiring, short book written by John Boyanoski and Greenville Mayor Knox White takes readers step-by-step along Greenville’s 40 +year journey as they conceived and implemented their long-term vision for Greenville reinvention. Greenville succeeded because it came up with a vision in the 1970’s and stuck with it. Later the city focused on developing it’s natural assets (the Reedy River), invested in a number of game-changing development projects that attracted residents and visitors to downtown and most importantly encouraged mixed-use development. This inspiring book about Greenville makes for a great case study on how to reimagine your city.
In 2018 I found myself in Greenville, South Carolina, for the first time. It was late afternoon and I was in town for a business meeting the following day. Tucked away in the northwest corner of the state in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains, surrounded by hundreds of miles of hiking and biking trails, the city of 70,000 is strategically located approximately two hours from both Charlotte and Atlanta.
After settling into an Airbnb, my colleagues and I decided to walk down to Main Street in downtown Greenville to explore the city and grab a bite to eat. As we walked along the historic tree-lined Main Street, I was surprised to find the area teeming with life. People were out and about on a Wednesday evening, outdoor cafes were full, and there was cuisine from all around the world. As we continued our walk we heard people speaking French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Mandarin. It’s something I’d grown used to in my native New York and my adopted hometown of Miami, where I’ve been living for the past 20 years, but South Carolina? This yankee was confused, albeit pleasantly surprised!
As we walked on the wide, shaded sidewalks we saw public art on virtually every block. There were construction cranes in the air. New, but thoughtfully designed, mixed-use infill projects could be seen sprouting up throughout downtown. I was perplexed. What was happening in Greenville?
We continued to walk south towards the Reedy River and came upon The Peace Center, where locals were lining up to watch a Broadway play. Just a few steps away the Reedy River Concert Series was in full effect. Hundreds of parents and their children were picnicking while listening to live music.
Intrigued, I went to bed that night determined to see more of Greenville, so the next morning I went for a run on the Swamp Rabbit Trail, a 22-mile multi-use greenway that runs along the Reedy River. Greenville was a mix of the great outdoors and vibrant street life. By the time I left town, I knew there was something special going on in Greenville — and I knew I had to return.
Fast forward to August 2020, with the pandemic in full effect. My family and I decided to take a summer road trip to Asheville, North Carolina, and later Greenville, South Carolina. Two years after I first set foot in the city, the south side of Main Street (known as the West End) was nearly unrecognizable. A number of mid-density apartments, condos, and hotels had sprung around the recently built 6,000-seat, minor-league baseball stadium, Fluor Field. New retail establishments and restaurants had also sprouted. Downtown Greenville was growing quickly — in a good way.
How Greenville Did It
After World War II Greenville’s economy grew like most cities, but during the 1960s and 1970s downtown Greenville fell into decline due to suburban migration. Luckily, Greenville had visionary leaders that believed in the city’s downtown. Mayor Max Heller (1971-1979) and Mayor Knox White (1995-current) were instrumental in helping and working with Greenville’s stakeholders to make downtown what it is today. They played the long game, and just recently Greenville was recognized as the #6 Best City in the U.S., according to Conde Nast Traveler’s 2020 Readers Choice Awards.
“Witty and charismatic, Max Heller was begged to run for mayor in 1973. He was so revered that he announced he would not seek a second term as mayor in 1975 unless business leaders did something about downtown’s decay.”
Austrian-born Max Heller moved to Greenville in 1938 to work for the Piedmont Shirt Company. The cotton mill industry was booming at the time, and Greenville had become the “Textile Capital of the World.” Heller worked his way up, eventually becoming vice president and general manager. He was asked to run for mayor in 1973, but he refused to seek a second term unless the business community supported and matched federal funding for the redevelopment of downtown. Soon after, the city received one of the first Urban Development Action grants ($7.4 million) and revenue sharing funds ($1.5 million).
Downtown business leaders respected and listened to Heller, and one of the first things he did was contract urban designer Lawerence Halprin, whose master plan called for widening sidewalks, minimizing driving lanes, and planting more trees. Suburban migration had resulted in an increase in crime downtown, and there were few businesses operating on Main Street. Halprin believed that planting shade trees and expanding sidewalks would be the first step in encouraging people to walk safely through downtown, which would in turn give business leaders the confidence to operate downtown.
“Cars are what drove customers, not sidewalks for people who never showed up. They clung to the hope that downtown would right itself on its own. But the major business leaders believed in Heller and, more importantly, supported him.”
By the time Heller passed the mayoral baton to Greenville native Knox White in 1995, a vision for the city had been cemented, and both men were determined to bring it to life.
“A vision was created that called for a different kind of downtown, one that Greenville and most of the nation had never seen before. A downtown where public art was key. Where housing was needed and promoted. Where anchors and building blocks were designed to draw people in and then lead them to the rest of downtown’s charms. Where retail shops were put on priority lists and underlined in red ink.”
How to Redevelop a Downtown Properly
One of the first large real estate development projects that reversed the blight of downtown was Greenville Commons, which opened its doors in 1982 right on Main Street. Surrounding the Hyatt Regency hotel, it included a five-story office building, a convention center, and a huge parking garage. Greenville Commons was significant because it was the start of public-private partnerships and it laid the groundwork for how the city would do business in the future. However, it would be years before Greenville would become known as the South’s best-kept secret. The Hyatt Regency lost money for 12 years. Success didn’t happen overnight, but there were 4 major projects during a ten-year span that helped change downtown Greenville’s character forever:
The Peace Center for Performing Arts
Greenville’s leadership wisely placed the Peace Center for Performing Arts on the banks of the Reedy River, just above Reedy Falls and on the southern, less developed end of Main Street. Opened in 1990, the center connected South Main Street and the Reedy River to the more developed north end of Main Street.
The funds to develop a large-scale performing arts center came from a unique private-public partnership that became a bedrock of Greenville’s redevelopment efforts. Greenville’s Peace family kicked off the fundraising efforts with a $10 million no-strings-attached donation. In 1989, a local arts advocate named Dorothy Hipp Gunter donated a Steinway Piano and $3 million to a 400-seat theater that now bears her name. Greenville’s school children raised funds to purchase a second Steinway piano. The city contributed an additional $6.4 million, the county $1.25 million, and the state $6 million. An astonishing 70 percent of the $42 million raised to build the Peace Center came from the private sector.
When the Peace Center for the Performing Arts opened, Alan Etheridge, executive director of the Metropolitan Arts Council, called it “one of Greenville’s biggest assets.” In addition to Broadway shows and plays, it’s home to the South Carolina Children’s Theater, the Greenville Symphony Orchestra, the Carolina Ballet and more. As Etheridge said, “Just look at what that facility has done for the community.”
The Redevelopment of the Historic Poinsett Hotel
Built in 1925, the twelve-story landmark hotel in downtown Greenville was one of the city’s first “skyscrapers.” Designed by New York City architect William Lee Soddart in the Beaux-Arts style, the hotel was developed in an era when small Southern cities demanded quality hotels to attract business travelers. In fact, the hotel in part was conceived to accommodate the biennial Southern Textile Exhibit, which attracted hundreds of attendees. The $1.5 million hotel was not an immediate success and lost money for the first five years. It managed to make it through the Great Depression and in 1946 was named the best medium-sized hotel in the nation.
By the time automobile ownership increased during the 1950s, downtown hotels began losing business to motels located near highways rather than in city centers. In 1959 the Poinsett was sold, but the new owners were unable to bring the hotel back to profitability and it eventually fell into such disrepair that the city closed it down in 1987. During the next 10 years the hotel was continually vandalized. Two fires were set to it. The Poinsett quickly became one of the most endangered historic structures in South Carolina.
Ten years later hotel developers picked it up and with the help of $4 million in tax dollars and Federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits awarded as part of an almost $20 restoration, the Westin Poinsett reopened its doors in October of 2000. The hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Construction of River Falls Park
With so many textile factories sprouting up along the Reedy River in the early twentieth century, locals started to refer to it as Rainbow Reedy due to the dyes used. The river looked bad and smelled worse. By the time city and state leaders erected a four lane bridge across the Reedy River Falls in 1960, the river itself was all but forgotten.
Then in the late 1960s the Greenville chapter of the Carolina Foothills Garden Club began weeding, gardening, and maintaining the area near the falls and below the bridge. Harriett Wyche, the president of the organization, called it “an oasis in the heart of the city” and referred to the bridge as the “concrete monster.”
With the help of the city, the Carolina Foothills Garden Club acquired roughly six acres of land around the falls from Furman College and several private landowners, and the Reedy River Falls Project was born.
“I was always drawn to the falls because of the history of the place. When I became mayor, it was the first place I would take visitors from out of town. You had to drive down to the river by a back alley and then go under the concrete bridge. I was impressed by their reaction, which was always strong. They would say, “Why in the world is this bridge here?” That confirmed for me that we had something special, though it was hidden away.”
Mayor Knox White
The Falls were located in what was known as downtown’s “West End” but was really just the southern end of Main Street. Back then this old warehouse district was seedy and blighted, and with the exception of the Greenville Army Store, no one dared to stop or linger. In an attempt to clean up the West End during the 1980s, many historic buildings were demolished and the area became a field of vacant lots.
With a shared belief that Falls Park could become the centerpiece of Greenville, Wyche and Mayor White teamed up to bring the area back to life. At the time the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) owned the bridge. Elizabeth Mabry, the head of SCDOT, was active in a Columbia-area garden club. With that in common, Wyche reached out to Mabry and invited her to see the Reedy River Falls Project for herself. The idea proposed was that SCDOT would give the bridge back to the city with the understanding that the city would demolish it and redevelop the area under the bridge. According to White, “As soon as she saw it, Mabry became our biggest ally.”
Finally in February 2002 the city council voted to demolish the bridge and create a twenty-five acre park despite concerns over traffic. Once unveiled, the transformation of the Reedy River from a glorified sewer to Greenville’s masterpiece drew people from the north end of Main Street and served as the spark for the redevelopment for Greenville’s West End.
Greenville had a great history with professional baseball for almost seventy years before a Texas Rangers affiliate left in 1972 and the city’s Meadowbrook Field burned. In 1984 business leaders were able to reel in the Braves’ AA affiliate, but the team left in 2004 because the city would not meet the team financial demands for a new baseball stadium downtown.
When dozens of other teams began courting the city, Mayor White insisted that a new stadium downtown would include a strong mixed use component in keeping with the larger vision for downtown. Soon a Class-A Boston Red Rox affiliate called the Drive began calling Greenville home.
The team proposed building a six-thousand seat stadium near a private, mixed-use development on a city-owned nine-acre site in Greenville’s West End. The city provided the land, and since the Drive agreed to pay for the entire construction of the baseball stadium, monies that had been allocated by the city for the construction of the stadium were then used instead to invest in the emerging West End’s infrastructure.
Fluor Field opened on April 6, 2006 to a sold-out crowd. The team drew 330,000 fans during the first year, smashing the Braves’ previous record. Since then the stadium has become an anchor for the community. Bicycle road races begin and end at Fluor Field. College baseball games are played and other events are held there throughout the year as well. It’s become a beacon for the city, and a way to draw the community together. Today thIs once blighted area of downtown is teeming with apartment, retail and hotel construction.
“The saga of the baseball stadium was the longest and most controversial project the city had undertaken. There were enormous financial hurdles, lawsuits and little public support for the longest time for a baseball stadium downtown. But there was one constant- city council members who shared a conviction that downtown is where it belonged, and that made all the difference.”
Mayor Knox White
It’s also important to recognize that one of the main reasons downtown Greenville has succeeded, while many other downtowns languish, is the city’s commitment to encouraging the development of mixed-use projects in downtown Greenville. All of the projects stated above played an important role in Greenville’s transformation, however if it weren’t for the critical mass of mixed-use housing that the city incentivized developers to build, Greenville would not be experiencing the success it sees today. Without people living downtown and supporting the ground level retail and local businesses, Greenville’s downtown would probably look like many neglected downtowns throughout the country that never recovered from the suburban flight of the 60’s 70’s and 80’s.
Building a Local Economy
While Greenville’s economy was initially centered on textile manufacturing, favorable tax benefits have lured foreign companies to invest heavily in the area in recent decades. As a result, the region is home to the North American headquarters of Michelin, AVX Corporation, NCEES, Ameco, Southern Tide, Confluence Outdoor, Concentrix, JTEKT, Cleva North America, Hubbell Lighting, , Greenville Health System, and Scansource.
In 1992 BMW opened a manufacturing plant employing nearly 11,000 people in neighboring Greer. Ten years or so later, the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR) was created, establishing CU-ICAR as the model for automotive research. The Center for Emerging Technologies in Mobility and Energy opened in 2011, hosting a number of companies in research and development and becoming the headquarters for Sage Automotive.
When Greenville’s Donaldson Air Force Base closed, the land became the South Carolina Technology and Aviation Center, home to a Lockheed Martin aircraft and logistics center, as well as facilities operated by 3M and Honeywell. General Electric also has gas turbine, aviation, and wind energy manufacturing operations in Greenville, and the city’s Donaldson Center Airport now occupies part of the former air base.
Transportation helps drive Greenville’s economic engine. Located on the Interstate 85 corridor approximately halfway between Atlanta and Charlotte, the city is served by a beautifully renovated international airport, Greenville- Spartanburg, a private aviation airport and an Amtrak station.
Greenville’s Future & Commercial Real Estate Development
Admittedly I haven’t spent much time in Greenville, but the little I’ve seen of the city has left a remarkable impression on me. There’s a lot to love about Greenville and it’s outdoorsy residents seem to enjoy a high quality of life. Its downtown is a place where people can live, work, and play because the city encouraged developers to build thoughtfully designed mixed-use projects from the very beginning.
Greenville stands to benefit from the macro-migration patterns in the Sun Belt states. There seems to be a young, entrepreneurial population that has moved to Greenville in recent years in search of a smaller city, better schools, and higher quality of life. I expect this trend to continue if Greenville’s future leaders and residents continue to reimagine how they can make Greenville more livable while attracting new businesses. This is a unique city that did things differently than other cities by investing in their downtown and should be used as an example for other cities. Greenville has what it takes to keep getting better and its redevelopment story seems to still be in the early innings.
Given the city’s commitment to sticking with their development plan to truly build a livable city where people can live, work and play it seems fair to reason that Greenville will likely see continued growth. Downtown Greenville has plenty of developable land still available and the city is in the midst of building a sixty acre park just west of downtown. Needless to say, Unity Park will likely become another catalyst to spur more development in Greenville and this will bring even more commercial real estate development opportunities to the city.
My wife and I have discussed the possibility of moving to Greenville in the not-so-distant future, but in the meantime, let’s not let the cat out of the bag. Please do not share this article until after we buy a home in Greenville. We don’t need more people moving there and driving up housing prices! Let’s keep Greenville our secret for now…
Mr. Knox White was born in Greenville, South Carolina. A graduate of Wake Forest University with a B.A. in History and the University of South Carolina School of Law he is a partner in the law firm Haynsworth, Sinkler & Boyd and specializes in immigration and customs. Mr. White was elected to the Greenville City Council in 1983 and served as an at-large member until 1993. In 1994 he was elected Mayor and has served as Greenville’s mayor for the last twenty-five years, a longer tenure than any other mayor of Greenville.
During his time as Mayor of Greenville, Mr. White oversaw the development of several projects that transformed downtown Greenville from a place where crime, prostitution and drugs where prevalent during the 80’s and 90’s, into a place where people today can live, work and play. In 2020 Greenville was recognized as the #6 Best City in the U.S. according to Conde Nast Traveler’s 2020 Readers Choice Awards.
Mr. White’s most notable redevelopment accomplishments in downtown Greenville include:
River Falls Park
Redevelopment of the Historic Poinsett Hotel
Fluor Field: Downtown Baseball Stadium
I had the privilege of meeting Mr. White for coffee when I was in Greenville in August. Our mutual friend Steven Wernick, who lives in Miami as well, discovered Greenville around the same time I did and was equally impressed with the city. Mr. Wernick’s curiosity about the downtown Greenville’s redevelopment led to a friendship with Mr. White. Mr. White was gracious enough to spend almost an hour with me talking about downtown Greenville’s transformation. The little time I spent with him I found him to be energetic, present and he seemed like a man that deeply cared about his community and wanted to share Greenville’s unique story. As busy as he is, Mr. White took the time to meet with me. The famous southern hospitality was in full effect and I am grateful to have him as a new visionary friend whom I can learn from. Seems like we could all use more visionary elected officials in this world like Mr. White who unselfishly puts their community first.
Greenville, SC Population: 71,000 (est.)
A Conversation With Mr. White
Stoic Urbanist: What is a regular day for you? Do you have a morning routine?
Mr. White: Mornings consist of an exercise routine at least three days a week. Usually I’ll do some cardio, mixed in with some weight training, which I’ve been doing for as long as I can remember.
I tend to divide my days into proactive and reactive meetings. Mornings are reserved for proactive meetings which I tend to schedule with neighborhood leaders, entrepreneurs, developers, etc. We usually meet for coffee.
Afternoon meetings are usually reactive meetings which means I’m trying to put out a fire or resolve issues that have come up.
Stoic Urbanist: What motivated you to run for public office?
Mr. White: Current events were always an interest of mine even at an early age. In sixth grade I volunteered for my first political campaign. I was elected Homeroom President, as well as Student Body President, in high school. I attended college at Wake Forest University where I was class President and Student Government Vice President. I always pushed myself to think outside the box and took pride in working with others to implement new ideas. After college I went to Washington D.C. to work on Capitol Hill as an aid to Rep Carroll Campbell (later Governor of South Carolina).
While attending high school in Greenville I worked on political campaigns and volunteered for organizations that aligned with my values and interests at the time. Throughout the 1970’s I would regularly take the bus to downtown Greenville to volunteer for the campaign I was working on. Campaign headquarters were almost always located downtown because it was the least expensive real estate in the city. I witnessed the decline of downtown Greenville firsthand as shopping malls with department stores started opening on the outskirts of the city, which led to the decline of retail and empty storefronts in downtown. At a young age I was very aware of the changes happening in our city.
Stoic Urbanist: What was the tipping point in downtown Greenville that set the city on its new path to becoming one the best cities to live in the US?
Mr. White: The removal of Camperdown Bridge and the opening of Falls Park on the Reedy was the tipping point for downtown Greenville’s revitalization. Every city has an asset or assets that need to be cultivated. Greenville’s greatest asset was Reedy Falls and the river itself. Falls Park on the Reedy quickly became central to Greenville’s identity. Shortly after inaugurating Falls Park, we began to see evidence of tourism coming to downtown, something we had never seen before. The opening of Falls Park exceeded everyone’s expectations and has really helped drive the growth of our city center.
Another overlooked, but central piece, to downtown’s boom was our commitment to build mixed-use developments which led to a critical mass of housing and people living in our central business district. In order to build this critical mass, Greenville worked with pioneer developers that shared our vision. We worked with developers that shared our same vision and partnered with them on city-owned vacant land with the understanding that they would build housing with retail on the ground floor and housing above. By bringing people and “more eyes on the street” to downtown it helped make the central business district a safer place to live, work and play. With a critical mass of people working and living downtown, new retail establishments began to open in order to support the needs of residents and employees that commuted to work daily to downtown.
Stoic Urbanist: Tell us about the sixty-acre park Greenville is in the process of developing just outside of downtown Greenville. How did this idea come about?
Mr. White: The City of Greenville is turning 60 acres of neglected lowland just west of downtown Greenville into Unity Park. At the park’s center will be a 10-story, lighted observation tower. Another large-scale pedestrian bridge will span the Reedy River where hidden wetlands will be put on display. There will be a playground with water jets, a gathering hall, vast lawns, and business and recreation inhabiting historic warehouses along the Swamp Rabbit Trail.
The city spent decades assembling land in the area that had long been a dumping ground for the city. The African American neighborhood that was adjacent to the neglected river area where the city for decades operated a jail, landfills, and even tossed junked vehicles!
The area has a history — a not-so-good history. It was a throw-away zone. This is a part of healing in the community and the park’s name speaks for itself. The city of Greenville will also build hundreds of affordable housing units surrounding the park which will blend with the existing fabric of the neighborhood.
Stoic Urbanist: If you didn’t live in Greenville, what other city would you consider living in and why?
Mr. White: I do love the Raleigh-Durham area. The area has great schools and parks. I’m also a big fan of Boulder, CO. Spending time in the mountains and nature is a big draw for me.
Stoic Urbanist: What will be the biggest challenges/growing pains Greenville will face in the coming decades?
Mr. White: As people and businesses continue to move to Greenville, transportation and affordable housing will become Greenville’s toughest challenges going forward. The city of Greenville is working with developers to come up with creative affordable housing solutions and we will likely expand our current downtown form-based code to other areas of the city. Downtown Greenville does not require parking for new developments and we would like to extend this parking policy to other neighborhoods, which in theory, should make housing more affordable if lenders are willing to lend on projects that don’t require on-site parking. Housing and transportation go hand in hand. There is no easy solution, but we’re doing what we can to make it easier and less expensive to build so that housing remains affordable. By encouraging density, mixed-uses and walkability our hope is that our residents will rely less on their cars.
Stoic Urbanist: What hobbies or interests do you have?
Mr. White: The city is my hobby and a passion of mine. I love exploring, walking and observing things on the ground for myself. Observation is extremely powerful and we can all learn a lot from taking the time to observe our surroundings and being present.
Stoic Urbanist: What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
Mr. White:Reimagining Greenville, Building the Best Downtown in America is a book that I wrote with John Boyanski. It’s probably the book I have gifted the most. I’m very passionate about sharing downtown Greenville’s story with others and it’s a story that needs to be shared so other cities can learn from our mistakes as well as all our successes.
I’m a voracious reader, particularly non-fiction, biographies and history. I have a strong interest in China and Chinese history and have travelled to China 14 times.
The book that has probably had the biggest impact on me and provided a path to reimagining downtown Greenville is The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. If you’re a city leader, developer or planner this is a must read book.
Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America by James Fallows is another one of my favorite books about American cities.
Stoic Urbanist: What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made?
Mr. White: Downsizing our suburban sprawl style home and moving to a zero-lot line, new urbanist master planned community, just outside of downtown Greenville. I’m now just a short drive from Greenville’s central business district. We have a city park and business center that is integrated within our community. It feels like living on a college campus. It’s walkable and I’m always running into my neighbors and having spontaneous conversations. The best part is there is no more yard work to be done! With the sale of our suburban sprawl home, we were also able afford a small second home in the mountains. My wife and I love to hike and to be in nature, so we try to get up into the mountains on the weekends whenever we can.
Every Saturday morning my son and I ride from Miami Beach to Bal Harbor and back. It’s a short 6-mile ride and we usually stop to take a dip in the ocean. Typically we spend about 2 hours or so biking and lounging on the beach on Saturday mornings. If any fellow commercial real estate parents would like to join us please email me @ firstname.lastname@example.org.