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Hundreds of trees line Main Street in downtown Greenville, S.C. Retailers and city leaders point to the trees, first planted in 1978, as the catalyst for downtown Greenville’s dramatic rejuvenation.
Daily photo by Eric Fleischauer
Hundreds of trees line Main Street in downtown Greenville, S.C. Retailers and city leaders point to the trees, first planted in 1978, as the catalyst for downtown Greenville’s dramatic rejuvenation.

Bringing in the green
In Greenville, S.C., success began with downtown trees
First of a five-part series.

By Eric Fleischauer
eric@decaturdaily.com · 340-2435

GREENVILLE, S.C. — Green-ville has one of the most vibrant downtowns in the Southeast, and it all began with trees.

The year was 1978.

Downtown Greenville then, pictures show, looked a lot like downtown Decatur today. Some retail, a few office buildings. The department stores had moved to the mall. One hotel, The Downtowner.

It was, said Nancy Whitworth, Greenville’s longtime director of economic development, a “utilitarian” downtown. Main Street, Greenville’s equivalent of Decatur’s Second Avenue Southeast, was a mile of asphalt, vacant buildings and a hodgepodge of shops that had survived the downtown exodus.

Members of the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce spent two days in Greenville this month to study a downtown that bears no resemblance to the bleak landscape of 1978.

“In the mid-’70s,” Whitworth said, “we had a mayor and a group of business people who said, ‘This is unacceptable.’ ”

Step No. 1 was trees, and lots of them. Cutting squares from the sidewalks and street to make room, city workers planted hundreds along Main Street. Twenty-eight years later, those trees — willow oaks, red maples, Bradford pears and zelkovas — are as much the lifeblood of Main Street as the thriving retail and commercial district that flourishes beneath their branches.

“The trees have a tremendous amount to do with our success,” said Dale Westermeier, Greenville’s parks and grounds administrator. “There are other issues, too — cleanliness, safety — but I think the trees are the main thing. If you don’t have those, I don’t think people are going to come.”

Greenville officials tout the trees, and economic development experts invariably point to trees as the most cost-effective way to spur downtown rejuvenation.

Their importance does not come through in ink-on-pulp, though. You have to see it.

Stand at Riverplace, a mixed-use structure with a hotel, offices, parking garage and retail shops, and look north. Trees stretch high over Main Street, nuzzling each other above the pedestrians that meander on wide, brick sidewalks.

A breeze carries with it the sound of leaves caressing and the lilt of wind chimes. The oxygen-rich air has the sweetness of a forest, not the smell of car exhaust. The sounds of commerce — people talking, engines running, doors closing — are muted through the blanket of leaves.

No wonder retailers took notice. This, they saw, was a destination. Now, nestled in the shade, are wrought iron tables with red-checked tablecloths. Glasses of wine and water-beaded mugs glint in the leaf-filtered light. A man in a suit leaves a $20 tip as he helps his companion lift a half dozen shopping bags.

Twenty-eight years after the first tree took root, Greenville — with a population almost identical to that of Decatur — has sprouted more than 80 restaurants in its downtown. The most sought-after tables are the ones beneath the trees. Dozens of art galleries, high-priced condominiums and boutique shops also line the streets.

Trees

In the early 1970s, Greenville’s Main Street had no trees and little commerce. Beginning in 1978, the city narrowed the street to two lanes and added hundreds of trees.
Courtesy photo from the City of Greenville
In the early 1970s, Greenville’s Main Street had no trees and little commerce. Beginning in 1978, the city narrowed the street to two lanes and added hundreds of trees.
Trees are a good first step in rejuvenating a downtown, Westermeier said, because they take a while.

“When I started with the city in 1986, the trees were just starting to get some good size and produce some shade,” he said. “When I first got here, I would say that 60 percent of the storefronts were closed and boarded up.”

With the shade came the people.

“It was just a short time after that when everything exploded. Things started looking really good for Greenville,” Westermeier said. “So it took about 10 to 15 years from when we planted the trees before they started providing shade and creating this atmosphere. And that’s when downtown really took off.”

The significance of trees to downtown Greenville’s success is not lost on its residents. On one of the days the chamber members were in Greenville, The Greenville News ran a piece by a local columnist.

“Look out your window,” wrote Jeanne Brooks. “Now mentally erase the trees so all you’d see all around were only buildings, utility poles, power lines, billboards. Like it?

“Some communities in other places have created nearly exactly that bleak landscape.

“Those places have forsaken a lot, and not only attractiveness.

“The thing is we have the proof right here — on Main Street, Greenville — that a gorgeous canopy of trees can be a key ingredient for economic wellbeing.”

Greenville Mayor Knox White agrees.

“The tree line on Main Street is the trademark of our city,” he said. “I’d call it our most valuable downtown asset.”

That is a bold statement given the downtown’s architecture, waterfall and fountains, and bronze statues.

The city is adding bosque elms and black gums to the Main Street landscape, and — notwithstanding the disruption caused by planting — local retailers are thrilled.

“They lend a beauty that no mural, painting or sculpture could replicate,” said Ben Gold, who owns Bistro Europa on Main Street.

Whitworth said retailers fought the city when it began its downtown development plan, which included not only plant-ing trees but narrowing four-lane Main Street to two lanes.

No longer. The original idea, said Westermeier, was to remove the trees and other landscaping after 30 years and start again.

“It’s not that simple,” he said. “If I tried clearing all those trees out, I’d get shot. Just replacing a few trees at a time, I’ve had people throw themselves on the feed tray of the chipper. And that was for dead trees.”

Some mistakes

The success story of Greenville’s trees did not come without mistakes, Westermeier said. Planting Bradford pears was a disaster. The irrigation system, laid too close to the trees when they were planted, is shot. The city did not plant enough different species of trees originally, making the downtown vulnerable to species-specific diseases.

The biggest mistake, though, was his.

“I keep thinking what a moron I was not to buy some land 22 years ago,” Westermeier laughed. “I do all that work trying to make the downtown beautiful, and somehow it never occurs to me the land would be worth some serious money one day. Land they couldn’t sell for $50,000 back then goes for a million bucks now.”

“Tell you what,” he continues, enjoying himself. “I’ll go in with you. Right now we buy some property in downtown Decatur for cheap, and then we’ll plant the trees. In 15 years, we’ll be sitting pretty.

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