Effort to revitalize High Point’s center city moving forward, principals say

by Jordan Green @JordanGreenYES

Members of High Point City Council have begun preliminary discussions about possibly implementing some of the recommendations made by Miami-based urban planner Andres Duany, albeit with modifications.

North Main Street could be slowed down by reducing traffic lanes, adding on-street parking and planting trees to create a more pedestrian-friendly experience, but the project might be shifted from the Uptowne section recommended by Duany to an area closer to downtown.

The Pit, a recessed parking lot that is envisioned as a cool gathering spot, might be renovated, but at a lower price tag than previously estimated by a local architect.

“It’s public property, and it’s an eyesore,” Councilwoman Judy Mendenhall said of the Pit, the former site of a failed parking garage. “I want something done. I’m not willing to spend a million dollars. I don’t know that anybody would support that. For a relatively small amount of money we could make it safe, add some lighting, clean it up, plant some trees and shrubs.”

Councilman Jason Ewing said he agrees that the city should improve the Pit through a more modest investment.

“The focus is on it being a destination place for groups to lease out,” he said. “The ideal would be that it’s a space that the city owns, but we don’t have to be a managing partner of what goes on there. There’s a lot of opportunity for food trucks to come in and artists to come in and do some tasteful graffiti. There’s a lot of opportunity to do things like that, that won’t cost us any money.”

Freeman Kennett Architects in High Point brought together a group of artists and designers that came to be known as the Pit Group, and developed a vision for the site. The schematic design produced by the architecture firm estimated the cost of fully realizing the vision adopted by the group at $1 million, partner Peter Freeman said.

Freeman said the scaled-back approach embraced by some council members would suit him fine. A theater with set pieces that go up and come down depending on the event is an apt metaphor for site, he said.

“There’s an opportunity to have competitions,” he said. “You could have submittals from culinary artists, craft beer makers and whole group of people that can begin to submit ideas to make this thing go. A lot of that would fall to the private sector, who would in fact run those competitions. Or a school or university in the area. There’s opportunities to fold people in to what we consider a very organic process. It’s something that will be ever changing.”

Slowing down traffic on North Main Street is the first project recommended in the Duany master plan that the council has taken up. The plan recommends widening sidewalks, planting trees and adding on-street parking to provide a buffer between pedestrians and car traffic on North Main Street between Lexington and Montlieu avenues.

Council members met with city Transportation Director Mark McDonald on Dec. 17 to discuss their options.

The question under consideration by council is whether slowing down traffic on North Main Street will create a disruptive spillover into residential neighborhoods, especially by vehicles passing through the city between US Highway 311 and Archdale. Ewing said some council members favor moving the project south from Uptowne to a segment closer to downtown.

“There aren’t nearby arteries for overflow and through traffic [in Uptowne],” he said. “You’re either going to get a lot of bottlenecking or you’re going to send traffic into residential areas. The question was asked of our director of transportation: If we’re going to diet, where is the best place to do it? He recommended Parkway Avenue to English Road. I believe that has some validity. Parkway runs around and goes parallel to Main Street and Hamilton [Street] runs parallel to Main Street.

“There are a lot of good infill opportunities that would be new construction and that would have an urban feel with buildings coming right up to the sidewalk,” he continued. “I personally think that would be a good connector from Uptowne to downtown.”

Freeman Kennett Architects is currently working on a schematic design to consolidate parking to create more public space in front of the High Point Public Library, where Duany memorably said, “The show is being stolen by Krispy Kreme.”

Freeman said of the library: “It gets hundreds of thousands of visits every year. It’s a completely used space — probably the most used civic building in  downtown. We feel it deserves a plaza that’s more dignified and something that’s more at a community scale.”

Freeman plans to present the schematic design to council next month. For her part, Mendenhall said, “I would like to see the cost involved of making the parking lot more attractive, but I don’t think we can afford to lose parking spaces.”

Even as the city moves forward on some of the recommendations in the Duany master plan, some council members are questioning the cost of subsidizing the nonprofit that has shepherded the initiative to this point. City Project is organized under a board of directors, but its executive director receives a salary of $100,828 from the city of High Point. Ewing said he expects city council to discuss a transition plan in January.

“There certainly has been discussion over the past few years,” he said. “When City Project was formed six or seven years ago, the goal was for them to be a stand-alone organization.”

Richard Wood, a Wells Fargo financial advisor who chairs City Project’s board of directors, said he agrees.

“We’ll be answerable to our board,” he said. “Not to the city council, not to the city manager, not to the mayor.”

Wood said the implementation of Duany’s recommendations hasn’t gone exactly as he envisioned.

“It’s not working out the way we hoped it would,” he said, “but if someone hijacks it and goes to the same place, that’s okay with me.”

Wood added that he believes council members are coming to understand that the initiative is an economic driver for the city.

“The private [investor] community is waiting,” he said. “One of the bankers I’ve been talking to told me: ‘I’ve got investors waiting on the sidelines to see if the city does something.’” Freeman said he’s pleased with progress on the initiative so far.

“I actually think it’s happening at the right pace,” he said. “What we presented in the master plan is some pretty innovative ideas. It’s some stuff that High Point hasn’t seen before. It’s easy for the naysayers to say it’s never going to happen. It takes some time for some people to grab on to it and say, ‘There’s some really great ideas.’ Some of those take a little time to incubate. As they begin to incubate the bigger picture comes into light.

“People are impatient for things to happen,” Freeman continued. “They think, ‘We have a master plan; now things ought to be under construction.’ That’s not how it works. The master plan is a vision-casting plan. You don’t have the documentation to go into construction. The next phase is to go into a schematic design where we really take a hard look at the site specific rather than the relation of the site to the rest of the city.” !