Code Talking

The Spartanburg Downtown Code, developed in partnership with the city by the Lawrence Group from Davidson, NC, will soon move from the charrette and public planning stage to a vote by city council.

The code is a progressive, even revolutionary document for our community. It articulates, for the first time in decades, a unified vision for the central business district and puts into place a set of “new urbanism” codes to assure its implementation.

The code starts by drawing a transect across the entire community and defining six types of zones of use and activity that already exist. The entire code uses this transect as its fundamental organizing tool. These zones run all the way from “the urban core zone,” an area of high human density like Morgan Square, to the “sub-urban zone,” to the “rural zone,” to the one I’m glad to see articulated the first time in Spartanburg, “the natural zone,” which the code calls “lands approximating or reverting to a wilderness condition, including lands unsuitable for settlement due to topography, hydrology or vegetation.”

Though it sounds complicated, this is a simplified code with a fraction of the number of pages as the one now on the books. It is on the level of the line-item code statements that tell potential developers and redevelopers what they can or cannot do that the real changes can come to our city. The new city code, among other things, gives much or greater importance to design of buildings than it does to their use; it encourages the placement of buildings closer to streets; it helps create mixed-use and pedestrian-oriented streets; it encourages daily living to occur within walking distance of downtown.

If this new code is passed we will leave to our grandchildren a much more beautiful and livable city than the one we have today.

But changing a community’s mind about itself is not easy. Our city suffers from the urban challenges it does today for a variety of reasons such as changing demographics (the flight of people and business from city center to distant suburbs), an atmosphere that has always privileged individual rights over public needs, and just plain bad luck.

I am hopeful that this city plan, unlike others in the past, will actually be implemented. With the help of input from city residents the Lawrence Group has crafted a document that could make us leaders in small city urban design.

Of course it’s not easy being progressive. There are two advantages to business as usual-it’s cheaper not to change, and it allows for more personal freedom.

Individuals with resources have always been able to do what they want in Spartanburg. I remember in the early nineties I watched the construction of the Flagstar Tower in downtown. I followed the progress as this “skyscraper” rose on East Main Street, confident in some dark recess of my brain that my hometown was somehow, when the tower was finished, going to become a “real” city with big buildings like Charlotte or Greenville. I believed, as most did in the days before the ideas of the New Urbanism became a common currency of development, that bigger was better, that it would be through monumental construction and the relocation of powerful corporate headquarters that our city would reverse its ruin.

This was before I understood how incongruous the Flagstar building project was and how it simply does not fit Spartanburg’s downtown.  SEASIDE, the 1995 book about New Urbanism documenting the experimental community on the Gulf coast of Florida, has a nearly full-page color photo of downtown Spartanburg in its introduction. Our 14-story skyscraper stands in sharp contrast to the historic two and three-story buildings across Main Street. Here’s what the caption says: “The Spartan Foods Tower ruinously dominates the smaller-scale buildings of Spartanburg’s historic downtown.” That tower, now half empty, has been for a decade a symbol of a city that briefly lost its identity.

The new city code will help us rediscover, recover, maintain, and shape our community’s identity. It’s possible there will be corporate headquarters coming into our central business district in the future, but if this code is passed and put in place they will have to build their office buildings as part of our community’s strong vision. We will have some control over how they will look and how they will contribute to the quality of life we have planned on a human scale.

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