2013 news in review: High Point

by Jordan Green @JordanGreenYES

A master plan for revitalizing High Point’s urban core that was released in November by Miami-based Duany Plater-Zyberk and local architecture firm Freeman Kennett noted that land-use planning in the has encouraged suburban sprawl and the Triad’s third largest city has lost furniture and textile manufacturing.

“The consequences of sprawl and the loss of a manufacturing base are problems common to American cities,” the document’s executive summary reads. “Warning: They are two of the three ingredients that have driven Detroit to its present bankruptcy.

The commentary continued, “The third ingredient present in Detroit is the incompetence of leadership, but this is absent in High Point.”

While competency is arguably a point of differentiation between the two cities, they share one common — and not salutary — attribute: Both cities have mayor who have been indicted on criminal charges.

High Point Mayor Bernita Sims’ alleged crime pales in significance to the wideranging racketeering conspiracy for which former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was recently sentenced to 28 years in federal prison. Another key distinction is that Kilpatrick was convicted of using his position as mayor to carry out extortion, bribery and fraud, while Sims’ alleged crime is personal: She is accused of writing a worthless check for $7,000 to a family member as part of an estate settlement.

The omission sums up the contradiction of High Point’s strange year of change — the first under the leadership of an African-American mayor.

On one hand, the master plan for downtown High Point’s revitalization — embodied in the flamboyant personality of urban planner Andres Duany — is the most innovative development in the evolution of the three Triad cities in decades. On the other, even as prestigious out-of-town visitors and homegrown activists engaged citizens through a series of charettes and tactical interventions, the city remained mired in parochial, old-line divisions.

In September, council members Becky Smothers, Judy Mendenhall, Jim Davis and Jason Ewing called for Sims’ resignation. The next month, the city council voted along racial lines for a resolution calling for both Sims and Councilman Foster Douglas’ resignation. (Douglas has been under fire for failing to pay a court settlement in a civil lawsuit against the city that pre-dates his 2008 election to council.) All six of the white members of council voted in favor of the resolution, while the three black members, including Sims and Douglas, voted against.

The elected officials’ divisions mirrored the community at large. At a subsequent meeting, 13 people, all white, stood in support of a statement advocating Sims’ ouster, while 22 people, all black, rose to support the embattled African-American mayor. Ryan Saunders, who has been active in the urban revitalization activities championed by Duany, initially participated in efforts to remove Sims, but later publicly reconsidered his stance and instead called for dialogue.

Saunders, who works in his parents’ electrical contracting supply store, spearheaded several initiatives that exemplified the transformative agenda of the master plan, including a pop-up party in the urban playground known as the pit at the culmination of Duany’s visit, organizing SoSi Festival of Cultures and hosting a local craft brewing festival at Mendenhall Terminal Transportation Center.

Development of the Pit itself was a major recommendation of the master plan.

The price tag for comprehensive development, based on an inclusive public input process, was estimated at $1 million. Several council members indicated they would not be willing to support the project at that level, but might back a more modest project to make the space safe to lease to private groups for periodic events.

Other facets of the master plan under consideration by the city include an initiative to slow down traffic on North Main Street and create additional public space in front of the High Point Public Library. So far there has been no movement to establish an incubator on the site of the old Oak Hollow Mall or to create pop-up retail by installing modified shipping containers in under-used parking lots. !