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The Future of High Point: Shipping Containers?

Planning star Duany offers a dramatic remake of downtown

High Point city leaders asked new urbanist planner Andres Duany what he thought of their not-so-quaint little burg. If it’s tough love they wanted, then Duany was more than happy to offer it up.

“There is no ‘Plan B’ for High Point,” Duany bluntly stated.

“Plan A” is the master plan prepared by Duany’s Miami-based urban planning company, Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. Duany’s new urbanist vision for High Point features the usual “public-private partnerships” — an auditorium, an amphitheater and “sea can” developments — structures made from shipping containers.

He also introduced an idea that sets up an apparent conflict with the prescriptive nature of such major redevelopment proposals — a “pink code” relaxing many of the regulations that can prevent businesses from starting in revitalized downtowns.

City leaders commissioned the plan with a vision of a vibrant downtown year round, not just the four weeks it hosts the High Point Market, formerly known as the International Home Furnishings Market.

Duany did not respond to a request for an interview. But it’s clear he made an impression.

“[Duany’s] a firestarter,” said Richard Wood, chairman of the City Project Inc., the city-funded nonprofit that promotes the revitalization of downtown. “We hired the best guy in the world to come here and take a look at High Point and give us some ideas. We’re not gung-ho about all of his ideas. But people are passionate about change.”

Also included in Duany’s plan is “The Pit” — currently a downtown parking lot — that he envisions as a “cool gathering spot” for young people — with an estimated cost of $1 million.

Last but not least, Duany also recommends putting a section of four-lane Main Street on a “road diet,” i.e. shrinking it to two lanes, a project that could cost as much as $11 million and take years just to cut through the bureaucratic red tape.

But in an ironic twist, Duany’s report also recommends easing red tape as a means of attracting development to downtown High Point. This “pink code” would attract young entrepreneurs, Duany maintains.

“Young people find starting any kind of business difficult. They can’t cook and sell anything without a permit, they can’t repair anything, and they can’t build. No wonder half the kids are driven to be artists. It’s the only thing they can do without a permit or a license,” Duany wrote in the executive summary. “So, only those places that have a light touch on the bureaucracy are going to succeed.”

Even so, there seems to be a “chicken or egg” debate among city leaders regarding road diets and pink codes.

“At this point, it would not be wise to push the pink code until Main Street changes. Until you change what Main Street looks like, nobody’s going to come,” said Wendy Fuscoe, executive director of the City Project. “A different development code is going to make people angry more than anything else.”

But High Point City Manager Strib Boynton is skeptical of the plan to diet Main Street, noting that he’s been in High Point for 16 years and has seen a lot of ideas for Main Street, including a tree-lined median.

“We have huge volumes of traffic that travel down Main Street. Where is it going to go?” Boynton asked. “There has to be a reasonable plan. To do anything without examining where the traffic is going to go would be counterproductive. We don’t just want to compound problems.”

Boynton dismissed the term “pink code” as a “just a phrase a consultants threw on the table one day.”

But the “concept of such a code is a good idea — reduce all the encumbrances possible to encourage development and redevelopment,” Boynton added. “The idea is sound.”

Boynton points out that many building codes are mandated by the state and cannot be modified by cities.

“We have to enforce them just like any other city has to enforce them,” Boynton said. “What’s unusual is we as a city are willing to look at them and sort out what might need to change. We’re willing to invest the time and dollars to do that.”

“You have to be legally sure-footed,” said city planning director Lee Burnette. “Some of the [code changes] we might be able to do locally. For other things, we might have to go up the road [to Raleigh]. The City Council just needs to understand what everything is and whether or not they want to pursue it.”

The City Council, which is coming off a heated debate over Mayor Bernita Sims’ indictment late last year, indeed is trying to sort everything out.

“What I’m hearing from the traffic engineers and the staff is dieting Main Street isn’t very practical,” said City Council member Jim Davis.

Davis represents the city’s 5th Ward, which stretches north toward the Greensboro city limit. He said some of his constituents are skeptical of spending taxpayers’ money on such a short stretch of road.

“We have to look at the cost — it could be as much as $11.5 million,” Davis said. “I have to think about the whole city. I have to look at the big picture.”

As for the pink code, Davis — who is a builder and developer — agrees it’s worth the effort to sort out which codes the city can revise in order to further encourage development.

“I definitely believe we need to have some discussions on the pink codes,” Davis said. “There are some exceptions in the building codes code that give discretion to municipalities, and I think we need to look into that. I think that’s our first step.”

Sam A. Hieb is a contributor to Carolina Journal.