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Brightleaf at the Park sculpts a niche in the suburbs

Artful living


Construction at Brightleaf at the Park on U.S. 70 between Durham and Raleigh - PHOTO BY REX MILLER
  • Photo by Rex Miller
  • Construction at Brightleaf at the Park on U.S. 70 between Durham and Raleigh

Developers are cashing in by building neighborhoods that cater to the Triangle's influx of educated professionals. Many of these developments, however, are aesthetically challenged—the term McMansion says it all.

But Charlotte-based developer Jim Medall aims to change that. "I'm not an engineer. I was an English major," says Medall. "I don't think in a linear way and I'm willing to take risks where others aren't."

His college days at UC-Berkeley are long behind him, but as a pioneering developer Medall is rethinking the aesthetics of suburban spaces. Medall and his wife, Vicki—who brings an artist's eye to the project—are the creative sparkplugs driving the placement of public art at Medall's 2,150-unit Brightleaf at the Park development off U.S. 70 in eastern Durham County. With this project, the Medalls are raising the bar on what elected leaders and citizens can expect from developers in the Triangle.

Here are several noteworthy features of the Medalls' work:

  • Most notably, the infrastructure for Brightleaf at the Park includes eight permanent pedestals ready for public art, in addition to the usual outdoor amenities.

  • Staff from Audubon International (not affiliated with the Audubon Society) were hired to help create a natural resource management plan that would respect wildlife corridors, natural waterways and wooded areas; 30 percent of the land is undeveloped.

  • Medall has donated 28 acres of land to Durham Public Schools to build an elementary school. (However, he believes property taxes rather than impact fees should support school construction.)

  • The Medalls support development of N.C. artists (and, they acknowledge, give their development a positive brand) by sponsoring the Rhein-Medall Community Art Prize, which has awarded approximately $200,000 in prizes and contracts to art students, working sculptors and university art departments in the last three years. This spring, those eight pedestals mentioned above will sport sculptures designed—and in some cases created by—the students who competed for the Art Prize.

When the infrastructure is complete at Brightleaf, Medall will have invested almost $150 million. When the builders who have bought land in the development sell the last finished homes seven or eight years from now, Brightleaf at the Park may well have a tax value of about $500 million.

The 2,150 units on 684 acres already sounds dense compared to some sprawling subdivisions, but consider that 30 percent of the land will be undeveloped, leaving room for wildlife, walking paths and mountain bike trails. Most of the units will be single family homes sited on one-sixth to one-quarter acre lots—the size common in inner-city neighborhoods that are hot right now. A smaller number of units will be townhomes and high-end apartments. Prices will range from $140,000 up to $500,000. Medall plans to build smaller developments in Durham, Wake Forest and Rolesville, but he hasn't yet determined if they will also have public art.

Brightleaf meets all of Durham's relatively high requirements for stormwater management and smart growth and even does a few things that Durham doesn't require. Almost all the houses were built with only enough grading to work on the house, leaving more standing trees intact. And builders must plant more trees in the cleared front yard than Durham's street tree regulations demand.

On a larger scale, Brightleaf is one of only about a dozen developments in North Carolina that have hired the nonprofit Audubon International's professionals to create a Natural Resource Management Plan. This plan covers not just wildlife and habitat protection, but also makes recommendations for best management practices that cover water quality, energy efficiency, waste reduction and integrated pest management. Audubon staff performs an on-site environmental audit when the project is complete and follows up with periodic re-certification site visits.

Medall says the amount of green building practices, such as passive solar, at Brightleaf will depend on the market demand from home buyers, but he wants to create "a framework ... so builders can do green building."

"Seed Within," a winner of a Rhein-Medall prize, in Durham's Central Park - PHOTO BY REX MILLER
  • Photo by Rex Miller
  • "Seed Within," a winner of a Rhein-Medall prize, in Durham's Central Park

But it's the public art that really gets the Medalls excited. Since 2004, they have sponsored the Rhein-Medall Community Art Prize, which is open to North Carolina art students. Participating schools in the Triangle region are Meredith College, UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State, East Carolina University and North Carolina Central University, the academic home of the first grand prize winner in 2004, Beverly Ford. Ford designed "Birdhouse," the sculpture with a flock of birdhouses roosting in a tree, that temporarily stands in Durham Central Park.

The Medalls have gone on to buy designs by some of the prizewinners and have either hired the student or a working artist to create the piece so it can be installed at either Brightleaf or Palisades, a Medall development near Charlotte. (Palisades has won Medall two prizes—Developer of the Year from the Homebuilder's Association in Charlotte and an Arbor Day Foundation prize.)

One winning art student, Adam Adcock, wishes that more developers could see what Medall is doing and play a similar role in the display of public art. Adcock, whose piece, "A Seed from Within," will be moved from its temporary space in Durham Central Park to the village green in Brightleaf at the Park this spring, was impressed that the Medalls were approaching students. Not only did Adcock win second place in 2005 representing East Carolina University, but the Medalls bought his design and hired him to create it.

Adcock says this prize and subsequent commission has played a huge role in his growth as an artist. "All of a sudden I went from putting my work in a school gallery to working for real clients," Adcock says. "They put my design before the public and the public received it well." Adcock had been considering that when he finished his M.F.A. he would have to spend a lot of time teaching art to make ends meet. Now he feels that "if I can get a studio built, I can make it as an artist."

One of the judges in the competition, Kate Ariail, former director of the nonprofit Liberty Arts, the home of the bronze foundry in Durham, says that what the Medalls are doing is "extremely remarkable and admirable" and that they are "using art as part of place making, rather than installing iconic work in front of an office building." Dr. Larry Wheeler, director of the North Carolina Museum of Art, also served as a judge and likes the Medalls' process for the art prize: Soliciting student designs and then rather than acting as judges, "using a jury of informed individuals" to choose the prizewinners. He says their competition and their use of public art "sets a good example for developers."

Another past judge, sculptor Al Frega of Durham, played an unexpected role in igniting Jim Medall's quest for public art. In early 2004, Medall was enjoying his coffee on the porch at Fowler's Grocery at Peabody Place, a complex near Brightleaf Square. Medall admired Frega's artful porch rails fashioned from recycled steam pipe and ventilator fans salvaged from the industrial laundry that used to inhabit Peabody Place. He recalls thinking to himself, "This is so cool. We have art in civic spaces, why don't we have art where we live? Why not feel this way when you come home? Why can't this art be part of everyday life?"

Medall's wife, Vicki, is director of the Rhein-Medall Community Art Prize. She deals with as many as 80 submissions a year from 10 schools. Capping the many prizes in the competition, the grand prize winner earns at least $4,000 and his or her art department receives a check for $2,000.

Last week, UNC-Chapel Hill student Lori Esposito was awarded the 2007 Rhein-Medall grand prize for her work entitled "The Diamond." She received cash prizes totaling $6,000 and her school received another $2,000. East Carolina's Adcock became a repeat honoree, winning a regional first prize and $2,000.

Esposito represents UNC-CH's second consecutive grand prize winner. Last year, Medall presented the grand prize by way of delivering the art department commencement address at UNC. Medall recalls telling the graduates that he himself had been "ready to be a terrific bartender" upon graduation, but that his degree in English had value in his later career "because it taught me to think."

Medall encouraged the graduates "to explore ways to apply your artist's perspective to a business environment.... The best, most successful businesses look for ways to tap the artist's perspective."

For more on Brightleaf at the Park, visit

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