Building for the Future

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

Park encountered this issue when the owners of a dying mall in northeast Milwaukee wanted to bulldoze the site to make way for one of Sam Walton's behemoths and other chain outlets. Max Rasansky, president of the Polacheck Realty Company, which deals exclusively in such big-box developments, was skeptical the first time Park showed him a PowerPoint presentation advocating a mixed-use community shopping district. "If you would have told the development community Œmain-street theme in urban Milwaukee,' nobody probably would have believed it or listened," Rasansky says. "Too often, planners are very black-and-white. You get an answer like Œno' rather than being creative." But Park was able reach a middle point with developers, persuading them to allow the main roads of surrounding neighborhoods to extend into the site and to position the stores so that their backs were hidden in a common service alleyway. Most important, he lowered the parking ratio to allow more density and the possibility of apartments and offices being built within the site.

"I think a lot of the developers came to really think that Peter Park knew how to add value instead of just harass them," says former mayor Norquist. "He wasn't just an aesthete; he was somebody who understood the market." Today the center contains the Wal-Mart, a grocery store, a Lowe's and numerous small retailers; since its opening, it has earned national attention, and Rasansky has become a convert. "I think that Peter helped the community find out that retailers, when pushed, will make changes in their prototypes to operate in urban areas," he says.

At Park's behest, Milwaukee also tore down the freeway that had cut neighborhoods off from downtown and restitched those areas into the fabric of the city. "It seems funny, but we took out a freeway to improve access for cars," he says. Although he has no plans to tear out a Denver highway any time soon, planners have kicked around the concept of redirecting I-70 so that it goes around the Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods in north Denver. Automobile traffic is such a horror for planners that Sim City even includes Autosaurus Wrecks, described in the game manual as "a monstrous anthropomorphized collection of vehicles," among the natural and unnatural disasters that a player can inflict on his town. But Park's concern for people who live in urban areas overrides any destructive tendencies that might grip other Sim City players. Planning a town has enough challenges.

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.

Back in Parktown, the firemen are threatening to strike. Park bumps up their funding and raises taxes on the middle class in an effort to keep the budget in the green. He might have pulled the money from the wealthy, but the town doesn't have any rich residents yet. Most are like Becky Zabeth, a 56-year-old who lives in the two-story Victorian on the corner of 1st Street and 3rd Avenue, works at Depeiese's Diner as a food purchaser, and worries about Mayor Park's tax increase. Still, she's happy to live in Parktown. "We seem to be doing good on the mayor rating," Park says, pointing to the polls.

Will Park's game plan work in Denver, too? In the coming year, he hopes to initiate the Mayor's Design Awards, which would showcase the best of the city's new design and architecture as a way to "create a culture that values good design" and push developers to compete architecturally without relying on more regulations to do so. "You can regulate design, and you can regulate good design to a certain degree," he says. "What I don't think you can do is regulate to create excellent design. Excellence occurs because you have a culture of excellence, not because you have laws."

Another priority is revamping the zoning code to allow, and encourage, excellent design -- starting with the East Colfax corridor. He motions toward the screen. "A lot of the elements that we are playing with in this game, all the functional pieces, sort of mimic what our elected officials deal with," Park points out. "What's so important is understanding what the interrelationships are between that structure and the type of construction, the land use and the regulatory system that shapes the land use, that creates the possibilities for beautiful cities to occur.

"And, um," he smiles, "not everyone understands that."

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