Published: Sep 14, 2008 07:12 AM
Modified: Sep 14, 2008 07:15 AM
Architect Jim Spencer says gathering spots evolve over time
CARRBORO -- Jim Spencer loves architecture -- so much, in fact, that when he and his wife walk down a new street, she often has to stop and wait for him."I notice design wherever I go," said Spencer. "I think about it all the time. ... Architecture fascinates me because it can have a tremendous impact on the community and the environment."Spencer, 39, grew up in nearby Burlington and earned a bachelor's degree in art history from UNC in 1990. After completing a degree in architecture at Georgia Tech, he returned to Carrboro in 1997 and settled into a rented house on Lindsey Street with his wife Caroline. In 1999, they purchased a historic home on Mallette Street in downtown Chapel Hill which they have been renovating ever since, and in 2004, he moved his architecture office out of his home and into Carrboro.For Spencer, designing the 300 East Main Street project in Carrboro is a unique opportunity to help revitalize a community he knows and loves."When I bid on the job, I told the property owners with great confidence that I'd spent more time on-site than any other architect," he said. He could not count the number of videos he'd rented from Visart, the slices of Amante pizza he'd consumed, the number of late-night shows he'd seen at Cat's Cradle over the years. (The best show he's ever seen there: "Sixteen Horsepower in 2002 -- hands down. They made a sound like I had never heard before.")So what Carrboro spaces does Spencer like best?"The garden behind Orange County Social Club, with its greenery and tiny lights, and the outdoor seating area at Carrburrito's," he said.What intrigues him most are nooks and crannies like these, gathering spaces with character that come into existence organically as business owners respond to the natural inclinations of their communities. These types of spaces can be found in big cities and small towns, tucked in among large buildings or small ones.Southern cities and towns are full of these intimate, vibrant spaces, says Spencer. Think of lush, hidden courtyards in Savannah, tiny alleys in the French quarter of New Orleans.Because these spaces evolve over time, Spencer designed the 300 East Main Street project as a canvas upon which the community could discover and create its own dynamic spaces. Spencer's design also incorporates walkways between buildings which he hopes will become "connections with character," like Chapel Hill's Amber Alley. He plans to watch how people use the space and add design features based on where people tend to gather.According to Spencer, when architects overdesign community spaces before construction, without observing how the space is used or allowing the community to participate in the design process, the result is sterile environments like The Streets at Southpoint mall, which simulate rather than cultivate community. To avoid this possibility, Spencer will collaborate with building tenants like the ArtsCenter, Visart, and Cat's Cradle to design their new buildings to suit their needs. That means his current plan includes "shell buildings" -- placeholders whose design will be completed over time, in collaboration with tenants and the community.From his office on East Main Street, Spencer has studied foot traffic in the area, and he thinks the east end of town could be much more vibrant, pedestrian-friendly, and connected to the rest of Carrboro. He'd like to see more people and fewer cars, especially in the morning and evening hours, and he hopes his project will accomplish that while also raising the town's commercial tax base.The 300 East Main Street project is the first five-story commercial project to come to Carrboro, and the first to provide structured parking. The design will feature a broad pedestrian plaza with a water fountain at its center, which Spencer hopes will be designed by a Carrboro resident. With a total of 55,000 square feet, or 1.25 acres of pedestrian space, the new plaza will become the third (and largest) gathering space in Carrboro, along with Town Commons and the Weaver Street Market.But Spencer points out that vibrant gathering spaces like Weaver Street don't just happen overnight. Looking at the market lawn today, he said, it's easy to forget that Weaver Street Market began with the cutting down of old trees and the building of a long storefront on one end of an empty lot. Over time a few tables appeared outside, and gradually a dynamic gathering space came into existence. In the same way, when the plaza is completed up to seven years from now, he does not expect it to instantly become a hub of energy and activity.The 300 East Main Street project is one of the most collaborative, community-oriented, projects Spencer said he's ever done. While Carrboro residents have different opinions about five-story buildings, he says they are in agreement that increasing density downtown is a good idea and that redevelopment of existing spaces is a sustainable way to grow.For the past four years, he and two other architects, Gaston Eubanks and Whitney Grumhaus, have been working hard to incorporate community feedback into their design. (Gaston Eubanks has recently left the firm.). To de-emphasize parking, they brought the building design up to the street. New pedestrian walkways and street crossings were incorporated to connect the new structure to the rest of Carrboro. An off-street bus turnout with a covered shelter and 80 bike spaces were added to encourage use of alternative transportation. The pedestrian plaza was expanded to enhance community activities. In response to concerns about driving existing businesses out of town, the architects made sure that all businesses in the current complex would feel at home in the new one.For the Artscenter, that means a building design that will balance its budget with its longterm goals. For Cat's Cradle, that means a two-story building with improved sight lines, better acoustics, and a capacity to hold twice as many people -- without compromising the venue's hip, unpretentious character.The best part of being an architect, Spencer says, is to sketch out an idea in pencil and then to collaborate with clients or communities to bring that concept to life. One night four years ago, he and a few colleagues sat down with cold beers and pencils in hand and began to sketch out their dreams for a vital new gathering space in Carrboro. A decade after that gathering, he may be able to take a slow stroll through a plaza he first drew on a piece of scratch paper.
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2008 The Chapel Hill News