Library plan ousts markets and other public gatherings

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by Jordan Green

City council approves an auto-oriented redevelopment plan for library while cracking down on unauthorized urbanism activities at the Pit.

With municipal elections underway, High Point City Council lurched forward on two projects in the Ignite High Point master plan, but turmoil and distrust continue to swirl around the council’s halting, ambivalent efforts to revitalize the center city.

Members of city council unanimously approved a plan on July 17 to redevelop the area around the High Point Public Library that allayed Councilwoman Judy Mendenhall’s objections to removing parking from the facility. The Ignite High Point master plan, submitted by urban planner Andrés Duany and local architect Peter Freeman, originally envisioned a public plaza that could accommodate farmers and artists markets, concerts and outdoor film screenings. Several council members, including Mendenhall, objected to the idea of removing parking spaces.

Freeman and Mendenhall worked together as part of a library-plaza committee to develop a modified plan, which council members adopted as their preferred alternative during a comprehensive planning-committee meeting last week. Council members also voted in separate motions to task staff with developing cost estimates for the library plan and burying overhead electrical lines along North Main Street near the library.

The modified plan does not provide space for markets and cultural events, but instead creates a grove of trees with a fountain and shaded parking areas. The plan actually increases parking spaces from 178 to 203. The new plan would also allow for future development of a botanical garden, which Freeman suggested would complement a nearby Krispy Kreme store as a setting for library patrons to enjoy cups of coffee while reading books.

A rendering by Freeman Kennett Architects
A rendering by Freeman Kennett Architects

Freeman said the aesthetic improvements to the site would also restore “dignity” to the library by drawing attention to the library’s entrance, which faces north in contrast to the northwesterly alignment of North Main Street.

“Since I was the one who was complaining about having to carry my stack of books across the parking lot from Krispy Kreme, I just want to say about this plan that it is so beautiful,” Mendenhall said. “I think it enhances and beautifies the dignity of what a library is supposed to be.”

The library parking lot is currently used by the Uptowne Market every Saturday morning. The market provides a venue for vendors to sell art, fresh produce and baked goods, and is managed by library arts-and-entertainment programmer Nic Covington. The weekly programming by the Uptowne Market did not come up at any point during the discussion among city council members.

“One of the fundamental comments was whether the library was an appropriate space to have a large gathering space, whether having a music venue, farmers market and film screening was a good idea,” Freeman said. “We began to look at this in a different light, more pensive about it as a gathering space, thinking about it as more of a singular use related to the library. We continue to see a need for a farmers market at a different location.”

High Point City Council
High Point City Council

Council members did not discuss an alternate location for public gatherings or pop-up markets during the meeting. Afterwards, Becky Smothers said that the Pit, a recessed area that was excavated from the ruins of a collapsed city-owned parking garage decades ago, might accommodate that use.

“I think the Pit can handle some part of that,” she said. “There’s another, yet-to-be disclosed project that would be a game-changer…. It involves a public-private partnership.”

Smothers conferred privately with fellow council members Jim Davis and Foster Douglas.

The library plan adopted by council got mixed reviews among revitalization proponents.

“I think it’s great that the city is agreeing to move forward and do some redevelopment,” said Richard Wood, chairman of the board of the City Project, which commissioned the Ignite High Point master plan. “The first plan we threw out is not the be-all and end-all. What we want is revitalization and a more walkable city.”

Steve Hollingsworth, a cycling advocate and owner of Green Door Wheel Works, was less enthusiastic.

“I would love to have seen a public gathering space, and a library is a wonderful place to do that,” Hollingsworth said, adding that private citizens still have a significant opportunity to improve the community, with or without the city’s partnership.

Ryan Saunders, a social entrepreneur who has hosted several events designed to build social capital in High Point in tandem with the City Project, suggested trust has eroded in the current council beyond repair, eclipsing any benefits that might come out of the redevelopment plan.

“I don’t think the current council should be making decisions,” he said. “They’ve already been proving that they don’t have the desire to make the changes we want.”

Saunders organized a public event at the Pit, Dinner with a Side of Culture, on Monday, July 14, that drew an estimated 250 to 300 people. Some council members were angry that the event was held without obtaining permission from the city.

Monica Peters, a member of the grassroots group We Heart High Point, volunteered during the committee meeting that although she did not organize the event, she signed a city-issued event permit to prevent the event from getting shut down. Interim City Manager Randy McCaslin said that he had the authority to order the police to arrest people for trespassing, “but we decided to handle it the right way.”

Council members also expressed concern about artists painting murals in the Pit during the event, and Davis asked whether the city could arrest someone for “defacing” public property.

David Rosen of We Heart High Point publicly challenged Davis’ statement as “defamatory.”

 “The event went flawlessly,” Rosen said. “There was no crime. There was no incident with the police. It was to revitalize High Point.”

To allay concerns about legal liability stemming from potential injuries, Peters agreed in the permit that no alcohol would be served or consumed at the event.

Saunders said he is frustrated with the city’s response and didn’t appreciate having to pay for police presence. He submitted a proposal to lease the Pit from the city in March, but said he has received no response. He had initially hoped to hold Hopfest, an annual craft-beer festival at the Pit, but opted to move it to Greensboro when negotiations with the city of High Point hit a wall. And now it looks like a movie night envisioned by Saunders will not take place at the Pit as originally intended.

A precedent for the July 14 event was set when former City Manager Strib Boynton suspended permitting requirements to allow a party at the Pit at the culmination of Duany’s visit to the city in May 2013. Similarly, the May 2013 party included food trucks and live painting.

High Point Theatre Director David Briggs, a city employee, developed a draft permit for use of the Pit that includes a 14-part questionnaire about proposed events, a requirement that the applicant buy liability insurance and obtain approval by the High Point Theatre and the city transportation department, along with a 19-part checklist covering amplified sound, cleaning, security, beer and wine, banners, rides and other factors.

Council members debated on whether to expedite a legal review of the permit to put a policy in place quickly or to take a go-slow approach.

“The barn door is open,” Smothers said. “We’ve already had two events where the city looked the other way.”

Mayor Bernita Sims said she couldn’t support moving forward quickly.

“I just don’t think we can say, ‘We let you come in the past, so come on,’” she said. “You can’t use it until we get something in place.”

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