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Fixing a Screwed up City


I live in a city that’s pretty screwed up. In many ways. But last month a cavalry rode into town with sabers drawn and bugle blaring, and our salvation may be at hand.

In land use planning there is no official category termed “screwed up city” but it fits.

I grew up – and returned to live and raise a family in – High Point, Furniture Capital of the World. High Point’s population doubles during each of the fall and spring International Home Furnishings Markets. As a wholesale trade show event, none of the furniture showrooms, which occupy a majority of the downtown space and close to 100% of the store fronts, is open to the public either during or between markets.

In other words, we have a downtown that is permanently closed to the citizens of the city.

On top of that we have little to no downtown public space, one way streets designed to move cars as quickly as possible from points A to B without an ability (or interest) to stop at points in between, a Main Street with an average actual speed between 45 and 51 mph depending upon time of day, and our hottest entertainment area in an outparcel-heavy district on Highway 68, three miles from downtown.

“Screwed up,” perhaps, is a polite understatement.

The cavalry that rode into town was a consulting group led by Andres Duany, who some have called the Father of Neo-urbanism. Duany’s team was organized by High Point “City Project” and paid for by private and public contributors who are desperate to see our city turn around before we have fallen irretrievably over the cliff.

Duany described High Point’s furniture market as “the most complete monoculture I’ve ever seen,” adding that all it is good for is “fame and tax base.” The town is designed and constructed to support a semi-annual economic event that, in itself, causes High Point to exist on statistical ledge, waiting against an unexpected event – any event – to topple it to the canyon floor below. “If the monoculture sneezes,” Duany noted, “there is no Plan B.”

In both standing-room-only public presentations, Duany expressed amazement at the obstacle created by the “market.” “When the market is gone, the entire downtown hibernates. . . . I’ve been to many places but never to a place where all the storefronts hibernate.”

In economic terms, Duany explained that the market is a “spike,” and spikes are terrible for commerce because businesses must continually “staff up and staff down.” High Point, he marveled, has the “Everest of spikes.”

Duany’s antidote is to create a mixed use town anchored by one “hot destination” district. Since the historic downtown is unavailable for that, he recommended another area several blocks north. “All it takes is two and a half blocks to create a famous destination,” citing examples of 2-3 block famous areas all of us had heard of.

High Point also must plant trees along that stretch and engage in “road dieting,” something he described as a non-negotiable aspect of the plan. Road dieting eliminates the hostile experience of speeding traffic, creates places for parking and landscaping, and nurtures a friendly, desirable place to visit.

Historical sidebar: High Point would have an even wider Main Street (it’s now four lanes plus center) were it not for my great-grandmother who, in a brazen act, moved the family business (Richardson’s Department Store) into the sidewalk space and much closer to the street, forcing all stores to move forward in order to compete. End sidebar.

Duany’s plan, presented in skeletal form after a week of charettes, included all sorts of other ideas, such as using “sea cans,” those containers used for overseas shipping, as cheap and quick ways to establish retail establishments.

If he was hostile to anything, it was the government, which he sees as an unnecessary obstacle driving up costs. “Why are all the kids these days becoming artists and filmmakers?” he asked. “It’s because those are the only things you can do without a governmental permit.”

Many other cities with fewer resources have been able to reverse urban divestiture and re-create a portion of their downtown that once was. However, no other city, to Duany’s knowledge or mine, has had to reboot their downtown without an available downtown. Stay tuned for developments!

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Mac Whatley permalink
    06/16/2013 9:39 am

    High points Main Street is also unusually wide because the streetcar tracks used to run down the center. I remember when they were still totally visible. That’s where the Thomas bus company got its start- building trolleys, such as New Orleans street car named Desire. Mr Duany would probably love that kind of streetscape!

  2. John permalink
    06/18/2013 4:57 pm

    What about south of the market center, no one gives a darn about south High Point. Never have and never will. Move the city north and east is the plan!!!!

    • 06/18/2013 10:43 pm

      Amen John….We have Thomas Bus that is one of the biggest employers in the city and they city does not give a crap about them or any other business in that area…..They are putting side walks where no one uses them. But don’t where a person was killed walking down the road cause there are no sidewalks on Fairfield.

  3. Jeff Deal permalink
    06/19/2013 12:01 am

    As an outsider from McLeansville, I don’t think High Point’s downtown is screwed up…it’s just not a downtown from Central Casting that fits into most people’s idea of what a downtown should be or do (including that of the “enlightened” Duany). When I was involved in discussions of merging land-use related regulatory functions county-wide, I knew that the only possible benefit High Point might realize from such a merger would be that building inspectors from the other jurisdictions might help High Point’s inspectors deal with the surge of activity associated with market-related upfit construction, because of the aforementioned differences. Maybe there are some tweaks that could broaden downtown HP’s year-round appeal, but hopefully no rash/expensive decisions will be made based on a pricey consultant’s (tunnel) vision by a city whose tax rate is already elevated.

  4. Joe permalink
    06/20/2013 8:29 am

    I was very hopeful that Andrés Duany would help to change downtown High Point from a ghost town to a thriving area for people to live, work and play. I attended each of the charrettes and walked with Duany through town as he explained how the two city owned parking decks could be transformed into cool housing for the young urban dwellers and how the old First Citizens building would make a great building for studios and lofts for young designers and professionals. High Point’s downtown will become a magnet for the 300,000 college students within a one hour drive of the City.

    Alas, all we got was a proposed park in a city owned parking lot on High Street known as “the pit” which will no doubt be used for some outdoor performances and food truck parking during market, another condominium tower for the showroom owners to use twice a year with a private amphitheater for use during market, some landscaping for Commerce Street and the parking lot between Showplace and the IHFC building, and proposal to use recycled shipping containers as temporary shops and restaurants in the Wells Fargo Bank parking lots on the north side of Kivett Drive. Nothing whatsoever to make downtown High Point hip and cool to the young people.

    Apparently his traffic engineers succeeded in convincing the city to redesign the proposed roundabout. Whether or not This succeeds remains to be seen, however his proposal to create a choke point by narrowing Main Street at the historic section is a very bad idea because it will vastly increase traffic in the historic Johnson Street neighborhood. His proposal for an urban mass transit trolly system is also folly. He proposed to link downtown to High Point University, Oak Hollow Mall and to the area known as “Uptowne” with a trolly modeled after the historic Thomas trolly cars. The problem is that rather than create a true urban mass transit system which would serve the needs of the population by linking the neighborhoods where people live with the placed that they work, he instead created a fancy and very expensive tourist trolly for the university, Uptowne and the market.

    The proposals for Uptowne were uninspiring, with the exception of the good idea not to waste money burying the wires outside of the historic section. Te problem with Uptowne is that in order to lure visitors to the area it must offer something unique and different from anything Winston-Salem and Greensboro as well as create a permanent dining/shopping space for nearby residents to use regularly, and that just is not there, even with Duany’s suggestions.

    As to the proposals for the mall and College Village, I will leave the feasibility of those suggestions to the university. Personally, I believe that the mall would be better off demolished to make way for a stadium so that the university can have a quality NCAA Division 1 team in a conference that pays better television revenues than the one that they are currently in, or perhaps be re purposed into a medical, law school or other university use.

    Perhaps the nail in the coffin of Duany’s plans was the idiotic proposal made at the final presentation to convert the High Point Country Club golf course into garden cottages for the people who live in the downtown condominium building and to convert the tennis courts into a community garden. That obviously was never discussed with any members of the club.

    In the end Duany and Ignite High Point was nothing but more of the same old, same old.

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