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CAN THE HIPSTERS SAVE HIGH POINT?

by Jordan Green

Ryan Saunders would seem to be an unlikely leader of the tactical urbanism movement in High Point, going on outward appearances.

He pulled up outside the Green Door Wheel Works bike shop on West English Road in a late-model black Jeep 4-by-4 wearing shorts and a neon-green T-shirt displaying the Eiffel Tower with the slogan “Ball so hard” on a recent Thursday evening. The attire made sense, considering that he’d come from a kickball game in Greensboro.

Initially, he and some friends had planned to pick up a temporary lounge assembly fashioned from cable spools and palettes at the bike shop and move it to a parking lot next to a building with a colorful frog mural in downtown High Point.

As a tireless instigator of efforts to liven High Point’s public spaces, inject a sense of creativity and otherwise build social capital to revitalize the city, the 25-yearold Saunders doesn’t miss an opportunity to promote his initiatives. And all week he had been talking up Park(ing) Day, an annual worldwide event launched by the Rebar design studio in which participants transform on-street parking into temporary mini-public parks.

This particular installation would be a bit of cheat since it was going in a private parking lot with the full permission of the owner. But Saunders had been hinting at a second, guerilla-style action that required a degree of secrecy.

There had been a change of plans; the owner of the bike shop had been held up on other business, Saunders said. Instead, he suggested we go take a look at the unauthorized mini-park readied for installation at the crack of dawn the following day. We headed up Westchester Drive, veered westward into the countryside of Davidson County and made a confusing series of turns before arriving at Soviero’s Tri-County Garden Center.

The landscaping business was enclosed by two metal gates topped with barbed wire. Ralph Soviero greeted us and slid a hitch to let one of the gates swing open. The garden center is located within what leaders in the three surrounding cities conceived as the “Heart of the Triad” about 10 years ago, but it felt to me like the end of the earth. The 29-year-old Soviero said he tells friends from Greensboro that it’s really not that far: Just take West Wendover Avenue until it turns into Skeet Club Road and keep going until the road ends. Then, when you see the Bizzy Bee Grocery, make a hard right.

Soviero and a friend, Ashley Lynch, were admiring their handiwork, a kind of tee constructed from palettes and upholstered with recycled cloth that supported with a semi-circular bench.

“Everything we used is recycled,” Soviero said. “We have these cloth scraps, which is cool because it’s what High Point left us.”

Saunders picked up the idea of miniparks from time he spent in San Francisco, where he attended a meeting hosted by the Rebar design studio. He was impressed by the scene on Polk Street, where many of the bars have companion mini-parks in nearby paid parking spots — an oasis of green space equipped with a bike rack to reclaim part of the street from car culture.

“All this is providing people with a place where they can congregate,” Saunders said. “Downtown High Point doesn’t have a lot of restaurants and shops, but if you put in a couple ‘parklets’ where people can read a book or just take a break, it will encourage new businesses to come. It’s all about that critical mass.”

Saunders works in his parents’ electrical contracting supply store in High Point, but the most ardent champion of its downtown revitalization lives in Greensboro.

“You’re only 25 once,” he said. “In terms of your everyday wants, Greensboro is where I need to be. Being able to walk out of my house and get food whenever I want and having entertainment options are important to me. I’m not a big fan of driving.”

The idea of taking action to transform the urban landscape of High Point without first getting permission might not be as provocative as it seems. It comes with the endorsement of Andres Duany, the renowned architect and urban planner who was hired to assist High Point in efforts to salvage its urban core as a humane place for people to congregate, eat and shop for a contract estimated at $450,000.

“And one of the things you’ll see us develop over this week is an extremely creative attitude towards guerilla retail and guerilla entertainment activities in your parking lots,” Duany told a capacity audience at the Hayworth Fine Arts Center on the campus of High Point University during his opening presentation to kick off a week of charrettes in May billed as “Ignite High Point.”

Duany’s visit and a forthcoming master plan were financed mostly through private contributions under contract with the City Project, an initiative to promote reinvestment in the city center. The organization’s executive director, Wendy Fuscoe, receives her salary of $100,828 from the city of High Point, but reports to a nonprofit board of directors.

The mini-park installation is not exactly bucking the system. A kind of “don’t-askdon’t tell” arrangement has been worked out. On the eve of his action, Saunders said Fuscoe had told him not to tell her what he was going to do.

The political, philanthropic and business leadership of Greensboro is pinning its hopes on a performing-arts center to replicate the success of neighboring Durham.

The arts and business elite in Winston- Salem is banking on a downtown theater district to drive economic development for the next 50 years.

There are no such grand gestures in Andres Duany’s vision for High Point: No high-ticket arts centers (although he does recommend that the city set aside a particular parcel of land for a future auditorium), no destination parks, no pitch for voters to support a major bond referendum.

The recurring themes of Duany’s opening and closing presentations in May were resetting the castoff parts of High Point — a dead mall and the underutilized parking lots in what he characterizes as the “zombie downtown” — as a blank canvas, actively recruiting high-skilled and underemployed millennials, and providing them a place to experiment and innovate in temporary work-and-live spaces enabled by a relaxation of regulation.

High Point’s central asset, Duany argued, is that it is located in the center of a galaxy of colleges that puts 335,000 students within an hour and 15 minutes drive.

“Those are the ones we need to bring here,” he said. “And the way we’re going to do that is make this a much cooler place in their terms… than Winston-Salem…. We’re going to make it the place that they go with their parents when they want their parents to buy them dinner. Or when they want to have fun, they’ll come here.

“Much of what we’re doing is working with the very young people,” he continued. “And you know what? They know parking lots. If you’re not going to give us storefronts, we know how to make cool outdoor bars, cool outdoor music, cool outdoor scenes. High management, low design.”

Forget the idle mills as future business incubators, he said. The cost of bringing them up to code is too steep. Try Oak Hollow Mall.

“Why not turn it into an incubator called the ‘Inc. Pad,’ which is the pad for incorporation,” Duany proposed. “We create a ‘camp.’ We permit the young architecture students of the many colleges here who graduate with lots of skills and have nothing to do — they can’t even find a job, and when they find a job, they’re detailing stair rails — so why not bring that young talent, get them together with the young entrepreneurs, and have them build really incredible cool little houses?” If it sounds a little like the “Dream of the 1890s” skit on “Portlandia” (“Remember the ’90s, when everybody was picking their own vegetables and brewing their own beer; people were growing out their mutton chops and waxing their handlebar moustaches?”), it’s worth noting that the current interest in handmade goods and local markets among the 20-40 cohort echoes the spirit of fine craftsmanship that helped establish High Point as a center of furniture manufacturing in the 1890s.

“I heard that you were full of talent in photography, you were full of talent for craft and workplace, you’re full of talent about finishes,” Duany said. “I mean, this place is full of craftsmanship. And you have these students that actually want to make things. It isn’t about electronics; it isn’t just about virtual. They want to make things.”

The basic building unit proposed by Duany for High Point is shipping containers. Yes, shipping containers. Invented in the mid-1950s by North Carolina native Malcolm McLean, they transformed the shipping industry by creating a unit that could move seamlessly from ships to trains and tractor-trailers, making smaller ports obsolete in the process. Also called “sea cans,” shipping containers have more recently been embraced by new urbanists as temporary structures for living and working.

Duany envisions chopped sea cans scattered all over High Point: arrayed around Oak Hollow Mall to house the architecture students, stacked in a downtown parking lot to create a children’s play area and lining Kivett Drive as caf’s and T-shirt shops.

In the absence of sufficient market demand to support new building, Duany argued that sea cans could be used as a transitional medium.

“We want to get in cheap,” he said. “We want to get in so we can incubate. A con-tainer, slightly used, costs a thousand dollars. It’s amazing. You can inhabit it. There’s nothing quite like a container in terms of affordable both storage and housing.”

During a workshop in High Point entitled “Tactical Urbanism” Duany cited a web book of the same name that outlines a series of tactical interventions, involving varying degrees of legal sanction. They include Park(ing) Day, along with guerilla gardening, pop-up caf’s, de-paving, chair-bombing, food trucks and ad-busting. Typically, they involve some kind of radical intervention by citizens to change the urban landscape or reclaim a public space from automobiles without requesting or receiving official approval. Their function is often temporary, as much to stimulate public dialogue as to meet a practical need.

Duany’s interpretation of tactical urbanism takes on a distinctly libertarian, anti-regulatory spirit and displays open contempt for the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“The proposal is to have a series of what I would call temporary structures — that might not be the final name — it’s an emerging type of development, which is temporary structures, which are much less expensive, and because the government still doesn’t understand what the hell is going on, they haven’t sort of zoned it away or made it impossible,” he said during the tactical urbanism workshop. “The minute the government recognizes something, they’ll make you sprinkler it and make it handicapaccessible. But at least in the South there’s a tradition of loopholes. And it comes with the camps, you know, you have camps. It’s a building. You know, you can build it without permits. You don’t quite need a building code. You don’t quite need electrical code. You don’t need to meet the handicap code. The camp is a fine old Southern tradition. It usually involves building without insulation, with the studs showing, in the woods.

We need an urban version of that.”

It’s hard to imagine the local civic leaders who raised the money to bring Duany to High Point would have predicted that the famous consultant would recommend that they flood the town with hipster artisans.

Strikingly at odds with the cosmopolitan thumping that was to come from the evening’s honored guest, City Project past chair Aaron Clinard burnished a Biblical metaphor brimming with civic providence to characterize his hometown during opening remarks to introduce Duany.

“I heard a great message last Friday night at High Point University’s baccalaureate service from the speaker, who talked about that famous passage from the Book of Matthew about the city on the hill,” he said. “And it reminded me of High Point. And it talks about shining the light across the world. And I am so encouraged by this crowd here tonight that I know that we’re going to make that light shine so brightly that everyone will want to come to High Point to play, to work and to have fun.

“And ladies and gentlemen, I know that you love this city just like I do,” Clinard continued. “I know that your families are here. And I know that you deserve what we’re trying to do. Our minister once told us that we should live what we believe. So if you believe that High Point can be the best place to raise your family, to have fun, then live what you believe.”

Duany opened by telling his hosts that their town was one of the most peculiar places he had ever seen. “It’s not exactly endearing, the way you’re peculiar,” he said, “but it is terribly unique.

“And it is difficult to explain to people who first see it because it looks normal except for the fact that it’s kind of shut down,” he added.

The celebrated urban planner savaged High Point for its “incredibly bad pedestrian experience,” noting that retailers can’t survive in such an environment and young people have no interest in being here.

“This is the regional center, if not the state center, of empty parking lots, empty parking garages and blank walls,” Duany said. “It’s almost impossible to take a photograph that doesn’t have to be edited so it doesn’t have something negative in it. You cannot put together three blocks of firstrate experience. By the way, I’m counting when the storefronts are open. If I actually had to find a place that had storefronts that actually were selling something, I couldn’t put together half a block.”

At 10 o’clock on the morning of Saunders and Soviero’s guerilla strike, I met Wendy Fuscoe, along with Richard Wood, a Wells Fargo financial advisor who serves as the current chair, in the conference room at the High Point Chamber of Commerce, where City Project has offices.

They both mentioned Ryan Saunders’ efforts on their own initiative, although both also said they had yet to see the unauthorized installation on North Main Street.

“Frankly, I didn’t know anything about this Park(ing) Day until Ryan told me about it,” Wood said. “Apparently, it’s a worldwide phenomenon. It’s really kind of guerilla marketing. Most of the people in this city have not even seen it on Main Street. It’s kind of cutting outside the lines.”

I asked Fuscoe and Wood if the audience at High Point University had been taken aback by the harshness of Duany’s critique.

“I don’t think what he had to say was news to too many people,” Fuscoe said. “We already knew a lot of that.”

Wood provided a different recollection. “It’s something we had not thought of,” he said. “He’s coming from a different perspective. I saw a lot of people nodding their heads: ‘I hadn’t thought of that.’” Fuscoe said she has observed no institutional resistance among the major players in High Point, including the home furnishings industry. Bob Maricich, the CEO of International Market Centers LP, has financially supported City Project, although Fuscoe declined to reveal how much; Wood said it’s “well in the five figures.”

“He’s only been supportive,” Fuscoe said.

“He’s bent over backwards to help us.”

International Market Center LP is the largest furniture showroom operator in both High Point and Las Vegas. Its two main investors are Bain Capital and Oaktree Capital. How the home furnishings industry responds to Duany’s vision for High Point will be a telling indicator of the city’s future, but the master plan under development clearly doesn’t depend on its cooperation.

“They really don’t care,” Duany said in his closing presentation. “What happens inside is terrific. Outside, you’re on your own. There is a disbalance. There is a sublime carelessness that the IMC has to the public realm. When they’re inside, they’re making deals, they’re doing business. When they’re outside, they’re not making deals. There’s an absolute contradiction between the two. There’s very little interest — I think it’s going to take a little pressing on these folks to say, ‘You’re leaving us behind a third-rate public realm because you’re not interested in improving it at all. You’ve left us in the parking lot.’” Like many others, Duany observed that the furniture market, which operates only about two weeks out of the year but anchors the city’s tax base, is responsible for the city having a downtown that is not designed to serve its residents.

“When the furniture market withdraws, it’s not like they liberate the shops so that we can conventionally fill them,” Duany said. “The shops are still sealed and ready for the next market. So we’re arriving at a place where the bulk of downtown is actually paying leases and yet shut.”

High Point University President Nido Qubein said he supports Ignite High Point, as the initiative propelled by Duany’s engagement with the city has come to be known. “At the end of the day we don’t want to be an extraordinary university in a city that’s not growing as fast,” he said. “We want to be an extraordinary university in an extraordinary city.”

He also said he was not familiar with Duany’s suggestion to turn Oak Hollow Mall, which the university owns, into a business incubator for architecture students.

“At the university we are open minded to all his recommendations,” Qubein said. “We have not seen or read any plan relevant to what you’ve spoken of. We will entertain any idea that has a sense of merit or practical application. Right now, that’s a concept.”

The city of High Point has been particularly responsive to Duany’s suggestions, although Fuscoe said it remains to be seen what they will do with the sea-cans idea.

On the night of Duany’s opening presentation, work had been underway to widen a North Main Street intersection to six lanes just north of the High Point Library. The intersection improvement would have undermined any plan to make North Main Street pedestrian friendly because it would have discouraged people from crossing the street to get to the library, Duany noted.

“This is a palpable mess,” he said. “No human can actually do this. It’s expensive and it’s ugly.”

The next morning Duany and Fuscoe were called in to meet with City Manager Strib Boynton, who arranged a 9:30 a.m. meeting with the public works department. The city staff agreed to consider an alternate plan drawn up by Duany’s team, and by the next day they had suspended work on the intersection.

“It was something like 1944, you know, when Americans could actually make a decision — the next day it was done,” Duany recalled. “Our engineers were with their engineers. It wasn’t our design in the end, but it was pretty close to our design. It was argued through, and there it was.”

The city is also working on a plan to slow traffic down on North Main Street.

In one of the unintentionally comedic parts of Duany’s opening presentation, the urban planner presented slides showing the transformation of a familiar block through a sequence of overlays: lanes on each side of the street converted to parking to create a buffer to protect pedestrians, row of trees to provide shade and beautification on each side and a “rumble strip” in the middle as a placeholder for future public transit — essentially reducing the thoroughfare from five to two lanes. Visualize South Elm Street in Greensboro.

The hall erupted in applause. “You’re clapping at something that’s completely normal,” Duany chided. “Do you understand what I’m saying? You’re starting from a very low point here. That’s a minimum-quality American main street, of which there are a hundred thousand.”

The city also embraced a recommendation by Duany to tear up the parking lot in front of the library to create a great lawn flanked by two rows of trees, with accommodation for a farmers market, in the process creating a more substantial visual presence for the building from the street.

At 5 a.m. on Park(ing) Day — Friday, Sept. 20 — Ralph Soviero and Ryan Saunders pulled up in front of Soviero’s Tri-County Garden Center in a utility truck. They’d been up well past midnight installing the temporary lounge assembly under the frog mural.

“We’re running on fumes,” Saunders said. Soviero grabbed a rusty can of nails and a pink plastic flamingo.

They steered the utility truck, already loaded with materials, down North Main Street, and 20 minutes later they were in the city center just north of the railroad. No one paid much attention as two young men started unloading palettes, fabric, sod and houseplants. Heavy trucks cruised up and down the street. With the exception of an early-morning runner, there were no pedestrians. Soviero and Saunders worked quickly.

As Saunders lay sod, an official-looking black sedan cruised past without slowing.

“Was that a cop?” he wondered. “Don’t stop,” said Soviero, hoisting material down from the truck. “We’re totally official. Totally official. Totally casual-normal.

See this truck? Official.”

They wrapped up the job in about 40 minutes, and walked away from the scene. Saunders was relieved that they hadn’t been intercepted and forced to take down the installation before it made some impact. His confidence was slowly building.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a big deal,” he said, as if still slightly unsure.

“That’s the problem,” Soviero fumed. “I want it to be a big deal. I want to see the paperwork. I want to see what the charges look like.”

We followed a little catwalk across the railroad tracks. They were eager to show me a place called the Pit.

Duany had described it in his closing talk as “a whole series of slopes and decrepit, broken-down parking garages, some pathetic leftover from the 1960s entryway, which is, of course, totally cool now. It can be entered from both sides. It’s got ramps.”

Based on a similar initiative in Miami, the urban planner saw a use for it.

“Build a hill,” he said. “Dump some sod and grass or Astroturf here to make a very, very cheap auditorium at the same angle as the ramp…. The ramp remains so that the food trucks can come in…. On top, for the daylight but also at night, sand volleyball. The sport of the age. Over here, lots of first-rate graffiti.…. And the furniture consists entirely of cleaned-up, old tractor tires, upside down pickle buckets, as well as spools. The thing is edgy. The thing is about lighting and chain-link fence and leaving it the way it is and spontaneous — extremely low cost.”

Saunders and his friends had approached Wendy Fuscoe the day before about throwing a party in the Pit. Initially reluctant, she eventually relented.

“I called the city manager,” she recalled, “and he said, ‘Make it happen.’” They contacted the state Alcohol Law Enforcement section in Raleigh and secured a liquor license.

“Did we follow all the rules? I can’t say we did,” Fuscoe said.

At the conclusion of his closing presentation, Duany invited the audience to come party in the Pit. There were food trucks and bands. Brian Davis, the artist responsible for the frog mural, had painted the words “the living wall” in bold lettering on one of the walls, and spray-paint cans were set out as an open invitation to selfexpression.

Saunders told me that Duany said that nobody had ever put his words into action so quickly.

This, Duany said, is something worth driving 75 miles to see and experience.

“You have a market here of 335,000 students,” he said. “You know what this does?

This totally bypasses and leaves in the dust whatever Winston-Salem thinks it’s doing, you know, whatever Greensboro thinks it’s doing. That’s old, 20 th century stuff. It’s pretty good, but it’s not what’s coming up.”

Visit yesweekly.com to see a video companion to this story.

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