Highland community stakeholders — more than 200 strong — met Monday night to begin the long awaited work on a neighborhood transformation plan.
Consider it a kind of blueprint that’s meant to guide the changes and renewal of the Highland community in coming years.
Jesse Wiles, CEO of APD Urban Planning + Management, called the meeting an important first step.
“It’s a way for this community to begin to transform, to turn themselves around and begin to realize the vision that they have to become a great place to live, work and play,” Wiles said Tuesday.
Wiles’ firm was selected unanimously by Spartanburg City Council in March to lead a roughly one-year planning process that is expected to cost some $186,000.
The point, according to APD Senior Planner Matthew Bedsole, is to gather as much community input as possible on the priorities Highland community members want to set for the area. The scope includes a deep look at the area’s challenges and opportunities, its history and demographics, its public spaces, housing, education and transportation needs, among others.
The Highland community, falling within an area between West Main Street to the north and Crescent Avenue to the south and bounded by John B. White Sr. Boulevard and South Forrest Street to the west and east, remains among the poorest parts of Spartanburg, according to statistics.
Tuesday night, community members offered their input on a variety of factors, like the priorities they’d like to see in terms of both public and private investment — grocery stores and affordable housing topped those lists — and both problem spots and opportunities.
Residents could mark on a map, for instance, blind spots on roadways and many said a solution needs to be found to deal with the aging Norris Ridge Apartments area.
“To try to rate these things on a scale from one to six, in terms of priority, I think that’s just putting me at a disadvantage to be honest,” Alston said. “The reality is that there are many, many areas that need to be addressed.”
The lack of access to affordable grocery shopping is a problem for people who lack the means to drive outside the Highland area, she said.
“There are many people who are forced to walk,” Alston said. “And that’s just one thing we need to change.”
She also stressed that revitalization efforts need to be approached in a way that won’t simply drive up housing costs to an extent that current residents can no longer afford to live there.
United Way’s Wilma Moore said she was pleased to see the turn out at Tuesday night’s meeting, and dreams of a Highland community that is as welcoming as it was when she moved to the area when she was 10. Her mother still calls the area home.
“I really counted myself lucky when I first moved there,” Moore said. “Kids could play in the yard, and you could sit on the porch and just feel comfortable. People walked up and down the streets and shared dinner. There was this great sense of family. I guess that’s why I fell in love with the place.”
The thing she most dislikes about the Highland of today? A sense of apathy when it comes to addressing the neighborhood’s woes.
“But that’s not what I’m seeing here tonight,” Moore said. “There’s plenty of people here who brought plenty of energy with them. We need to see more of this.”
Leon Wiles, the chairman of the Highland Community Development Corporation, said he was encouraged by Tuesday night’s turnout at Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church. He said he believes the community must address its safety challenges as it tackles concerns like affordable housing.
“There have been improvements all along, like the addition of speed bumps and stepped up patrols by the police department,” Wiles said. “But there’s still more that we can do. I honestly believe a police substation could be a smart addition to the community, and we have to find a solution to Norris Ridge.”
Wiles also said the community participation Tuesday night was beyond what he expected.
“We’ve had some meetings in the past that couldn’t hold a candle to the number of folks that we’ve seen here tonight,” Wiles said. “So I’m really happy to see that.”
Two additional meetings will be held later this year to gather community input, though APD officials said dates have not yet been set.