Friday, May 04, 2012

Back (And To The Side) Revisited: Were Our Dogs Chasing The Wrong Rabbit?

Local issues update: Sears closed its Oak Hollow Mall store for the final time last weekend. By the time I made it to the mall this week, all the Sears signs had been stripped off the building. Things are looking dire. There are more bald spots on the directory than you'd find on a dog with mange. It'll be baffling if it's still open for business in its current form at this time next year, but looking at the number of other ghost malls that dragged out the inevitable for years, it wouldn't be entirely surprising.

The last time I spoke to you on this topic, I declined to answer the question "Why did this particular retail venture in this particular time period go belly up?" In part, that was a polite way of saying "Since I don't actually live in the city, I don't get a say in city issues."  However, I'd like to expand my line of questioning to something that isn't being asked nearly enough: Was the city even chasing the right goals in this particular space?  Triad area freebie The Rhino Times, covering the end-of-March visit of architect/city planner AndrĂ©s Duany, made me wonder if the answer is the Magic 8-Ball's classic "Don't count on it."

Rhino's Paul C. Clark characterizes Duany's talk at High Point University as "a series of humorous but all-out assaults on city planners, environmentalists, architects, bureaucrats, road and highway designers and even High Point itself."  Duany's concept of sane development is basically going back to the way cities used to be laid out before cars took over, basically walking-around urban neighborhoods with a mixed zoning development (his ideal Carolina city is Charleston). So predictably, in spite of "high-quality humans" living here ("against all odds"), the town itself is a sprawling mess. That's no surprise; this town is not made for pedestrians, and hasn't been for quite some time.

What followed took a little time to sink in, but when it did, it was a real smack in the chops (my emphasis):

Duany pointed out one thing he said was "fantastic and odd" about the High Point University Campus – that it has a steakhouse, other restaurants, a movie house, stores, a swimming pool at its student center and a host of other amenities that are usually provided by the private sector off-campus in a college town. 
"What this university has had to do, and I'm sure it was conscious, is internalize what a college town usually does," he said. "There is zero college town out there, so they have to internalize everything. Even the housing."
High Point University, which as High Point College has been a part of the city landscape since 1924, has been on an ambitious growth streak in the twenty years since it upgraded to university status. The latest completed addition, the $50 million University Center, was among some people the most controversial. It includes the aforementioned student housing, movie theater, steak house, and a "two-story state-of-the-art 'gaming and restaurant' concept," whatever that means. Rhino Times again: "High Point University has been criticized for fencing itself off from the community, but there are, as Duany said of other cities, few amenities to which its students can walk. [HPU President Nido] Qubein has created his own city[...]"

That, in a nutshell, sets up tonight's study question: While the city boosters were chasing malls and major league baseball bids (the part I referred to in January as "aspirational spending"), what's suddenly starting to feel like the real future of the city felt compelled to build all those "college town" amenities without us. Putting aside for a moment the things we touched on in January, I've become convinced that the question of "Why did Oak Hollow Mall fail in under twenty years?" is a twin joined at the spleen to the question "Why did Qubein have to build his own city behind a fence?"

(While you're mulling that over (and I doubt I'm entirely done with the topic yet), it's worth looking at the Sky City blog entry on Oak Hollow which inspired my first post on the topic. Be sure to read the comment thread, where people who love this town as more than a place to sleep and eat when they don't have to be somewhere else start getting real. Feel free to ignore my input there, though. You've read it already at twice the length...except for the part where I mention that developers started putting out feelers to build yet another mall, even further north, and thus ever-so-slightly closer to the killer Hanes Mall than even Oak Hollow was. This town is impossible to figure out sometimes....)

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