Building for the Future

Peter Park is in the urban-planning game for good.

In 2002, the Denver City Council had approved the plan, which anticipates an increase of 132,000 residents and over 100,000 jobs in the City and County of Denver over the next twenty years. By dividing certain segments of the city into "areas of stability" and "areas of change," Blueprint Denver aims to preserve the character of neighborhoods by directing growth into places the city would like to see developed. The 200-page document flashes hyphenated new-urbanist buzzwords such as "multi-modal streets," "mixed-use buildings" and "transit-oriented development," and calls for establishing design standards that would make new buildings follow principles that strengthen the urban qualities of a given site. But because it's the zoning code that sets the legal requirements that developers and architects must follow, Blueprint Denver, for all its comprehensive vision, remains just an elaborate expression of where the city wants to go.

Will Fleissig, a planner who worked on the redevelopment of lower downtown during Federico Peña's administration and later as planning director of Boulder, sat on the committee that interviewed dozens of qualified applicants from around the country for the planning-director job. Fleissig is a founding member of the development group Continuum Partners, which is responsible for the celebrated eight-story mixed-use building 16 Market Square in lower downtown and Lakewood's Belmar, a notable example of a suburb building itself a true downtown -- in this case, on the site of the old Villa Italia Mall. Park was Fleissig's pick; he'd met the Milwaukee planning director at a Congress for New Urbanism convention held in Denver in 1998. "He comes across so differently from a lot of planning people," Fleissig says. "He doesn't come across saying, ŒHere's the way it's going to be,' or ŒHere's the answer.' He says, ŒHere's the context, here's the problem, here's the opportunity for a particular area, whether it's a plan or a design or a building.' He really is an educator, and the fact that he was an architect as well was just an amazing background."

But Park was happy with his life and work.

Urb appeal: Peter Park filled out the Hickenlooper 
cabinet a year ago.
Mark Manger
Urb appeal: Peter Park filled out the Hickenlooper cabinet a year ago.

"He had no interest in leaving Milwaukee at all," Hickenlooper remembers. At the behest of Fleissig, Park visited Denver three times in the fall of 2003, taking tours of the city and meeting with numerous developers, architects and members of the planning department. "I kept trying to convince him that it was a crucial moment for someone like Park to come to Denver," says Hickenlooper. "We're essentially growing like a sunbelt city, and we could really benefit from someone with his experience and his perspectives."

Since opening the Wynkoop, Hickenlooper has been a strong supporter of urban living and has developed a couple of loft projects of his own. "We recognized that for our business and for our city, getting more people living downtown is a great thing," he says. When people live closer together in well-planned urban areas, it not only creates cultural vibrancy, but it is also more energy-efficient. New York is "the greenest city on earth," Hickenlooper points out, because per capita, the population uses a fraction of the water, heat and energy resources regularly consumed by their counterparts living in less dense, auto-dominated regions. "I view myself as an urbanist," he says. "In other words, I believe in cities."

But Park still wasn't convinced. It would be hard to leave Milwaukee and the Craftsman-style house they owned by the lake; Park's wife, Kristin, owned a thriving residential design business that focused on updating historic homes. "We're both urbanists," Park says. "She's just working on the other end of the scale."

Hickenlooper was so sure that Park was the right person for the job that he "basically manufactured" an interest in Milwaukee's charter schools in order to fly to that city and meet with Park again. For Park, it was Hickenlooper's commitment to urban-planning issues that finally made him take the job.

"That's one of the reasons we were able to get Peter Park to come here," says John Parr, the president of the Alliance for Regional Stewardship, which consults for cities around the country on growth-management principles. "Between Lowry, Stapleton and the Blueprint Denver plan, there is probably no place in the country that is doing as much to implement the new-urbanism principles."

When it comes to how people experience daily life, the planning director plays a critical role. "What will the city feel like twenty years from now, or forty years from now?" Hickenlooper says. "Because all those decisions are being made right now."

"Where do we put the Wal-Mart?" chuckles Julius Zsako, communications director for Denver's planning department. Park smiles and lays down additional road access to the industrial area, but pauses to consider the implications such a move would have on Parktown, any town. This is the classic dichotomy of economic forces gathering to pummel the incalculable characteristics that give us beloved places. We value the traits of Main Street, yet we shop at big-box centers that, from a design sense, represent the worst excesses of suburban sprawl. Their windowless, cinder-block exteriors floating in huge moats of asphalt shun the fact that they exist in a specific place, time and community.

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