Architect proposes bold, innovative steps to keep High Point thriving
Miami-based urban architect Andres Duany and his crew of planners and engineers came to our city and looked at it with an outsider’s perspective.
From changing the city’s codes and permit processes, to moving beyond furniture and becomming cool enough for young people to want visit High Point, here’s what he had to say about his vision for High Point’s future.
If Andres Duany was looking to shake up the status quo in High Point, he certainly accomplished his task.
The Miami-based urban architect and his team of planners, engineers and other professionals concluded a weeklong stay in the city on Wednesday with a preliminary report that will be developed by September into a master plan on how to revitalize Uptowne, the furniture market district and the High Point University area.
Duany’s ideas include short-term suggestions for drawing attention to center-city areas without a lot of upfront investment and long-range initiatives that will require government action.
He and his team were brought to High Point by The City Project, which raised most of Duany’s $410,000 contract from private sources. The city contributed $50,000. Duany shared his ideas at High Point University’s Hayworth Fine Arts Center.
Here is a closer look at some of the points he made.
A key theme of Duany’s plan — which drew some of the top applause lines from the audience — calls for reducing what he termed bureaucratic obstacles that stifle entrepreneurship.
He and his team will propose a new set of codes setting out development rules aimed at streamlining the city’s permitting and inspection process for building projects.
“We’re confronting the fact that your only chance is bringing the young people, and they can’t do it unless we lift the regulatory regime so that they can make use of the assets that you have without making them so expensive that they have to go elsewhere,” he said.
While the high price of real estate may be an impediment to starting a business that is beyond the city’s control, it does have influence over other factors, he argued.
“Just starting a business at all is so difficult that it has driven half the kids to be artists, because they can’t cook anything without a permit. Because they can’t sell anything they cook without a permit. Because they can’t repair a damn thing without a permit,” he said.
Duany’s ideas were music to the ears of people like High Point developer Coy Williard.
“We have to have safety features. We cannot forgo the safety of projects, but I think the other side of it is to speed up the process by which you review and approve plans and then inspect progress,” Williard said. “Everybody needs to work together as a team — the city, developers, builders — to make this process something we can all be proud of and enjoy quickly.”
City Manager Strib Boynton said he welcomes Duany’s recommendations for cutting out red tape.
He pointed out, however, that some of the regulations governing businesses — such as sprinkler-system requirements in buildings for fire safety — are state building codes that the city has no control over.
“We try to explain it to (Duany) and he dismisses that,” Boynton said. “I’m anxious to see whatever this ordinance is that he has and how we go about cutting out a lot of the state building codes. I’m not quite sure how that happens.”
Smoothing out spikes
“You actually are unique, and not in a good way.”
In making this statement, Duany emphasized how the High Point Market poses challenges to revitalization. The difficulty is finding ways to make the center city attractive outside the two weeks of the year when 70,000 to 80,000 furniture market guests are in town.
“This is what I see: a commitment to an incredibly successful industry for 100 years, and a position that is now in decline,” he said.
High Point has built-in advantages that should prevent the decline from becoming a crash. The key will be to sustain year-round business activity that is tied to the market.
“You have the (Mount) Everest of spikes, which are the market. Spikes are terrible for commerce. Any kind of spike is terrible for commerce, because it means you have to staff up enormously, then you have to staff down,” he said.
Downtown storefronts are “in hibernation” during non-market times, but could be awakened, he advised.
“Doubling your population, transporting, housing and feeding 80,000 people makes you logistical geniuses,” he said.
Duany advised taking small measures — allowing shipping containers housing restaurants and retail to be set up in vacant parking lots, for example — to gradually bring people back to downtown.
The Holy Grail: young people
Much of the success or failure of the master plan will hinge in large part on whether young people are drawn to the center city, in Duany’s estimation.
He said there are about 226,000 college students within a 60-minute drive of High Point, and 335,000 youth within a 75-mile radius.
“They will drive 60 minutes if you can keep them occupied for two to three hours. Now, none of them are driving here,” he said. “You have an extraordinarily sprawled city. People (in north High Point) have no idea what’s going on (in the center city). They belong just as strongly to Winston-Salem or Greensboro as they do High Point.”
Young people are primed to migrate to the center city if given the right incentives, he argued.
“Sprawl doesn’t have a future. Aging folks don’t drive and young people who grew up in suburbia think it’s uncool. They want to be downtown,” said Duany. “So everything indicates you have young people that like downtown, and they’re going to be pioneers.”
The master plan is being designed with a 15- to 20-year time frame, geared toward people who are now in their 20s.
“The situation to remember is that we as planners are futurists,” he said. “We’re spending a lot of time thinking about what the future is going to look like.”
When The High Point Enterprise recently asked 100 people from across the community what the city needs, young people interviewed stressed entertainment and quality-of-life amenities.
Duany said there is another priority young graduates have that the city should welcome.
“What they need to incubate a business is cheap real estate,” he said.
Parking lots = practical steps
Among the practical steps Duany is advising the city to take is to break down the three areas into smaller segments.
In Uptowne and around the showroom district, for example, empty parking lots abound, which could offer opportunities for small-scale use without a lot of business investment.
Using shipping containers, or sea-cans, in creative ways for artitistic or retail purposes to fill in space in vacant parking lots is a start. Along N. Main Street in Uptowne, the city already has one major capital project in the planning stages — burying overhead utility wires, something that Duany didn’t exactly praise.
“There is so much faith that revival will ensue when you have a sign ordinance and when you bury your overhead wires,” he said to laughter from the audience. “It hardly gets you off the ground. It doesn’t even raise your spirits. You’re just putting money down the rat hole unless you follow up with the whole street space.”
He suggested doing this along a stretch of N. Main Street through Uptowne by “dieting” the street into one lane of traffic in each direction with a rumble strip in the middle that could be converted to a turn lane. Adding trees along the sidewalks and allowing cars to park on the street would foster a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood atmosphere and help Uptowne’s storefronts, he said.
“People don’t like to walk past an open parking lot. It’s a hostile environment. They’ll walk past a building,” Duany said.
Duany’s ideas for some downtown buildings were ambitious, including the vacant structure at 101 S. Main St. known as Showplace West. He praised it as a strong prospect for residential lofts, but condemned the regulations requiring that the eight-story building have sprinkers installed.
Williard used to be part of a group that owned the building. He said he applauded many of Duany’s ideas about relaxing regulations, but not this one.
“The only thing I do not agree with is, I think buildings of two floors or more should be sprinkled,” Williard said. “I don’t have any problem with paying for or making that mandatory. I would hate to be on the eighth floor and a fire break out.”
Duany’s team already has provided the beginnings of an answer to this question.
After they saw the city’s plans for building a traffic circle at Lindsay Street, Elm Street and W. Parkway Avenue, the team huddled with city officials to tweak the design.
Boynton said the city plans to make some revisions that will change the traffic circle to more of an oblong shape.
“It’s the same basic principle, but much more pedestrian-friendly and user-friendly,” he said.
The changes can be made within the existing right of way and probably within the project’s budget, he said. Most of the work to date on Lindsay Street has involved moving utilities. Construction has not started on the traffic circle.
Duany will suggest a “light” code of ordinances for the city to adopt that will be “part of the solution and not part of the problem.”
Boynton said a steering committee will be formed of local representatives to help guide implementation of the plan.
“I think the fact that he’s divided it up into manageable little segments is positive and good,” Boynton said. “I think we need to act and move forward. It can’t be one of these things that sits on the shelf and gets buried.”
He said translating some of Duany’s ideas into solutions will take some work.
For instance, how would the proposed narrowing of a portion of N. Main Street impact the two streets — N. Hamilton and Johnson streets — that run parallel to it? Would they be overwhelmed with traffic?
“I think the idea is sound. It’s practical. It’s clearly what the business interests favor up there,” Boyton said of the street dieting idea. “But, if you’re going to shrink Main Street, where is the traffic going to go? We’ve talked to him about it, and he’s going to come up with some recommendations.”
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What he said
Here are some of Andres Duany’s observations from his closing presentation Wednesday:
“What you need to do is keep your young people.”
“Downtown is clean and empty.”
“You’re not in trouble. You’re in decline, but not in trouble.”
“I’ve never been to a place where the storefronts are in hibernation.”
“You have an enormous amount of parking lots that aren’t being used.”
“Your tax base is an advantage, but there’s no plan B.”
“Plan B is to enable a lot of people to act.”
“As many as 50,000 (college) students graduate within an hour’s drive. What are you doing to capture them?”
“Lift the regulatory regime!”
“Public works should be unified. .. One of the things we did by stirring the pot was to get these guys talking to each other ... We discovered a lack of coordination (between departments).”
“Younger people want transit.”