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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