South Carolina’s oldest inland city builds a town green

Author:

Philip Langdon

New Urban News

Camden, South Carolina, population 7,103, occupies a site laid out in 1732, about 30 miles northeast of Columbia, the state’s current-day capital. Yet despite being the oldest inland city in South Carolina and the fourth oldest city in the state, Camden never had a central green.

That’s changing now. In mid-October, construction crews began ripping out a beaten-up parking lot adjoining Market Street in the community’s center. By late March, Camden will have a completed town green with parking around on all four sides — one of the elements in the Downtown Camden Vision Plan produced in 2008 by the Charlotte, North Carolina, office of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. (DPZ).

Once the former municipal parking lot is redeveloped as a green space, “it could be used for outdoor events,” says Camden City Planner Shawn Putnam. Wade Luther, the municipality’s downtown manager, expects the green to function as a “third place” (the term for gathering places coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg) and to increase foot traffic for local merchants.

Because the old parking lot was inefficiently laid out, the parking capacity will actually grow —to 83 spaces from 71 — despite installation of the new green. The parking spaces — all perpendicular — will surround the green and will line some nearby properties as well. The project is estimated to cost $1.1 million, which will be paid by revenue from a hospitality tax enacted in November 2009.

Three sides of the green will face the rears of buildings. “We hope that with the renovation of the parking lot, this will spur owners to fix up the rear facades,” possibly using municipal façade grants, Putnam says.

Complementing the project will be a “road diet” on three blocks of Broad Street downtown — another facet of the Vision Plan. The US Department of Transportation awarded Camden a $456,000 TIGER II grant to pay most of the costs of planning and engineering the road diet, which includes shifting heavy truck traffic to another route, which will have to be improved. The federal money will be combined with $114,000 in city funds.

“You can be walking down the sidewalk and an 18-wheeler carrying logs comes rolling by,” Putnam reports. “Some merchants say they see merchandise shake on their shelves as the trucks go by.” After Broad Street is reconfigured with back-in diagonal parking and two travel lanes, with tractor-trailers removed, the atmosphere should become more appealing for people on foot, Putnam expects.

Ironically, Broad Street had two travel lanes plus diagonal parking on both sides until the early 1990s, when the state DOT “changed it to four lanes and parallel parking on both sides,” Putnam says. “We want to go back. There’s not a lot of traffic on it — not enough to necessitate four traffic lanes.”

Tom Low, head of DPZ’s Charlotte office, says the Vision Plan focuses on “improving residents’ access to employment, recreation, and affordable housing; attracting the creative class; and making streets more pedestrian-friendly.” The city’s hiring of a downtown manager was recommended in the plan. Camden is also adopting a SmartCode for downtown.

Mayor Jeffrey Graham describes Camden as “a great historic Southern town” that has suffered from being made too automobile-focused. “If you look through old maps and photos of our downtown over the last one hundred years, you’ll see how the automobile began to dominate city planning initiatives after World War II,” Graham says.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Graham adds, “We Southerners love our cars, but one of the keys to making Main Streets work is finding a pedestrian/automobile balance.”

Low says the original plan for what became Camden (in what was first designated as the town of Fredericksburg) was very similar to the plan of William Penn’s colonial Philadelphia.

A brief YouTube clip of the parking lot-to-town green transformation, complete with xylophone and accordion music from about 1958.