How did private equity firms come to control the majority of a small city downtown?
Highest and Best explores the answer in a wildly unique spin on the classic account of a deindustrialized city aspiring to reinvention. The book documents High Point, North Carolina’s headlong embrace of “highest and best use,” a real estate tenet that privileges land uses resulting in the highest selling price. Behind the city’s apparent success is a story of the local leaders who chose real estate values over community and the local activists who feel this strategy sacrificed both.
During the last three decades of the 20th century, High Point’s downtown transformed into what one leader called “the last bastion of free market capitalism.” Over 80,000 visitors from more than 100 nations traverse the downtown’s 12,000,000 square feet of exhibition space during the twice-annual High Point Market. Serving as the furniture world’s fashion week, it has withstood rivals in Chicago and Las Vegas to stand atop a network of furniture expositions that includes global cities such as Paris, Shanghai, Milan, and São Paulo.
Yet the “tidal wave” of investment that connected the downtown to the world also closed it to residents. For sixty years, downtown High Point has been off limits to residents both during Market, when they are asked to stay out, and between Markets, when the downtown is under the control of specialized showroom designers and developers preparing for the next exposition. The result of this arrangement has been a city with drastically different ‘frontstages’ and ‘backstages.’ “Our downtown belongs to the world,” said one local activist who called its combination of economic success and social failure “the perfect riddle.” Locals wanted back what such leaders called their “living room.”
Resident interests were washed out by the fierce competition of furniture firms consuming the downtown like—to cite one resident—a “green ooze” from a science fiction film. In the midst of the turbulent growth of the 1990s, the competition took an aesthetic turn and the result was an architectural landscape with designs conjuring cruise ships, giant dressers, Chinese pagodas, and SoHo lofts. Once characterized by a plurality of powerful owners like Chicago’s Merchandise Mart Properties along with smaller, scrappy operations, in 2011 private equity firms—first Bain, then Blackstone—acquired the majority of the downtown real estate.
Highest and Best is a timely and engaging story that will challenge and revise our understanding of local urban decision-making within the globalizing world.