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Planner: Upstate cities have not lost traditional downtowns

Hospitality and Tourism
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Across the country, the aspect of urban planning is as different as the characteristics of each city.

In the Upstate, the three largest cities – Greenville, Spartanburg and Anderson – have varying populations, from 27,000 to 61,000. Bob Begle, an urban designer with Atlanta-based design firm Lord Aeck Sargent, said all three are working toward the same goals in terms of presenting strong, traditional downtown areas.

“All three cities have great downtowns that serve as destinations and community places,” Begle said. “While many Southeast cities have lost their traditional downtowns, Anderson, Greenville and Spartanburg have focused recent efforts on improving theirs, though their individual areas of focus have varied.”

He said the smallest of the cities, Anderson, has worked to celebrate “its traditional small town roots and worked hard to preserve its history and character through Heritage Tree Districts and several in-town Historic Districts.” Anderson has three such districts, which Begle said is very rare.

In Spartanburg, he said the focus has been on retrofitting unused textile mills and turning the areas around those mills into what he called “proactive neighborhoods.”

Greenville has become “a national model for reinvigorating a mid-sized city center through creative economic development tools and strategic public infrastructure such as the Liberty Bridge,” Begle said.

Those three markets have experienced evolution with regards to urban planning. Begle said over the last 15 years, complex issues such as meld land use, mobility, public space design and character and arrangement of private development have been just a sampling of that urban design evolution. He said most of the Upstate communities had very broad urban design philosophies or those that were more “down in the weeds” with more detail devoted to landscaping and streetlights.

“Today, increasing developmental pressure and regional competition have led to the realization that creating diverse spaces requires more nuanced and comprehensive design strategies. Those strategies involve the design of parks, plazas, public buildings and transportation systems,” Begle said. “In this context, the biggest evolution has been a better understanding of the importance of guiding the relationship between private and public development and how those two sectors  can best work together to create good community spaces.”

Across the Southeast, many communities are starting to realize the need for outside-the-box thinking when it comes to planning. Cities and towns have to take into account more broad transportation issues and regionalize economic development efforts so as to be competitive and bring in new business investment, Begle said.

“The Southeast in general has been slow to come around to this type of thinking, but is starting to catch up. Some regions have gone all in by creating merged city-county governments, particularly where one dominant city is the economic generator for the whole county,” Begle said. “Examples of these include Athens-Clarke County, Macon-Bibb County and Columbus (Ga.) Consolidated Government. These arrangements allow for more concentrated and aligned efforts that serve the region as a whole.”

Another advent for urban planning has been the implementation of design review boards, similar to those in Charleston and Greenville. Begle said the aspects of those boards are different and can be “cumbersome, time consuming and a big deterrent to investment and development when looking at the short-term goals,” but “they can also be effective tools in helping control the character of the built environment over a longer period of time.”

“Ultimately, well-designed cities are the best tools for economic development. Across the country, isolated office parks and strip commercial developments are losing favor as millennial workers and consumers seek more authentic places with diverse offerings,” Begle said. “Controlling development - to a degree - is critical to ensuring that these authentic environments continue to exist. The key to developing these successfully is to create guidelines and a review process that is workable. The best strategies put more emphasis on form rather than style as a long-term solution to creating great places that endure.”

With the Upstate centrally positioned along the I-85 corridor and with the regional approach taken toward economic development, Begle said the area can “take advantage of very large and emerging regional thinking associated with linking Charlotte and Atlanta into a mega-region.”

“That can associate a range of challenges surrounding transportation, land use and economic development,” Begle said. “At the more local scale, I think Anderson, Greenville and Spartanburg will continue to focus on strategies to enhance their downtowns as their greatest assets.”

Reach Matthew Clark at 864-720-1222.

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