Building for the Future

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Peter Park has big plans for Parktown: a vibrant downtown surrounded by distinctive neighborhoods; a comprehensive public transportation system of bus, train, maybe subway. "The ingredients to make good urbanism," he calls them. He plans to mix the impressive architecture of museums, office buildings and townhomes with the scaled-down charm of corner stores, walkable local schools and animated streetscapes. Residents of this working-class town might consider their creator's grand vision a little far-fetched; the so-called main street is bordered mostly by gas stations and car dealerships and hardly looks like a downtown. Park, though, knows that his town is growing rapidly. After all, just twenty minutes ago, Parktown had a population of 167. And therein lies the planner's dilemma: How do you accommodate growth and still prevent the sprawl of soulless subdivisions, strip malls and business parks that typifies so much of the American landscape? Park is one of the country's leaders in solving that puzzle for cities, and he'll demonstrate how right here -- but he's already late for a meeting with Mayor John Hickenlooper. Unlike Parktown, Denver isn't installed with a pause mode.

Park looks up, disengaging himself from the screen of the laptop where he's been playing the popular create-your-own-city computer game Sim City 4 for the past forty minutes. A year ago, Hickenlooper all but kidnapped the 41-year-old planner from Milwaukee in order to make him Denver's new Director of Community Planning and Development. Park quickly acquired some very non-simulated tasks, such as overhauling the city's cumbersome zoning code and guiding the implementation of 2002's ambitious land-use/transportation plan Blueprint Denver as well as the recently approved FasTracks. Throw in the redevelopment of Stapleton, the Central Platte Valley and three more large-scale infill projects, and this city becomes a tremendous undertaking -- and opportunity -- for the new-urbanist planner credited with reinventing Milwaukee's battered urban core.

Park adjusts his wireless specs; there's much to be done. The tall, thin frame of his body seems to hang casually inside his black suit, almost as if his clothes stand firmly upright in his closet at night, silently waiting for the day to begin. With his inconspicuous demeanor, angular face and closely controlled smile, he looks like the quiet kid who sat in the middle row, center aisle in math class -- the kid everyone asks for answers. But even back in grade school, he would find himself looking beyond the blackboard -- to the walls and the buildings they create -- for the questions that really interested him. In fourth grade, he'd draw outlines of cityscapes on sheets of notebook paper. In junior high, he took all the drafting courses. When he headed off to high school, he geared all of his electives toward math, physics and science. His future profession seemed as tangible as the model structures he spent so much time crafting. "You know, I never thought about ŒWhat do I want to do?'" he says. "It was, ŒWhat do I need to do to do that?'"

He soon had a degree in architecture from Arizona State University and a master's in the same subject from the University of Wisconsin. Working for architecture firms in Boston and Milwaukee, he found his interest quickly expanding to the colossal organisms known as cities. He returned to Wisconsin for another master's in urban planning and design.

The profession of urban planning, regarded in past decades as the exclusive realm of paper-pushers, formula-minded code-enforcers and traffic engineers, has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. Cities such as St. Louis, Cleveland and Washington, D.C., are looking to a new generation of planners for economic, cultural and aesthetic direction. In 1995, John Norquist, then mayor of Milwaukee, felt that his city's planning department had been severely deprived of such sensibilities throughout the '70s and '80s, and he recruited Park. "The previous plan was more to suburbanize the city," explains Norquist, himself an expert in urban design and education issues. "Not valuing the old neighborhoods -- particularly if they were poor -- removing them and replacing them with a suburban-style development, and then turning the downtown into a corporate office park. And that plan I didn't like." At the time, Park was a partner with the Planning and Design Institute, a Milwaukee-based firm that consulted with towns and cities on urban design; he was also an adjunct professor in planning at the University of Wisconsin, a position he continued to hold throughout his tenure as planning director.

Norquist gave the 32-year-old Park a mandate to take Milwaukee in a direction that would strengthen the city's urban fabric rather than tear it apart, and he armed Park with a considerable amount of political clout. Not that anyone really noticed at the time. "Very few people knew or cared who the planning director was," Norquist says. Both men shared a passion for the built environment, though, and the mayor's dogged pursuit of smart-growth design and Park's ability to raise the bar for the development community translated into some of the most architecturally lively urban-renewal projects in the country. Within eight years, the Norquist/Park duo had reworked the city's zoning code and started a boom in new housing in downtown Milwaukee. They also reoriented development to match the design strategies of the Congress for New Urbanism, a Chicago-based planning-reform organization that Norquist now heads.

Park was invaluable in converting their abstract feelings into reality, Norquist says, and he credits the planner's careful, almost mathematical attention to every detail of how buildings would express themselves in a given space. "He understands cities," Norquist notes. A member of the Milwaukee planning commission once compared Park to Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann, the nineteenth-century French administrator whose system of grand boulevards, bridges and public buildings transformed modern Paris. "I was kind of shocked," Park admits.

Park's greatest influences haven't been the famous architects or planners codified in textbooks. For him, inspiration comes from places -- or, as he puts it, "going to places that are interesting and surviving places that are not." His parents would take their three children out of school every year for two weeks to visit New York or Chicago. It was on these trips that Park first experienced the culture and energy of metropolitan areas, which fed his growing interest in architecture. Later, after he was trained in design and planning, visiting great neighborhoods in Boston, monuments in Washington and assorted cities across Europe made him think about the concepts of composition that create great cities. "You know, from a design point of view, what makes these places successful?" he explains. "But also from a planning side, what were the influences and motivations for implementing things in this way? What had to happen on the political level, or the financial level, or an engineering level, to come up with this result?"

Park is quick to point out that planners are only as effective as the mayors who appoint them, and he credits many of his Milwaukee successes to Norquist's intense support for good planning. But in Sim City, players are the mayors and responsible for every aspect of their towns. They have the power to control taxes, build infrastructure and civic institutions, and adjust the power and water supply. It's like Dungeons & Dragons for bureaucrats. Park may be geared to lay down the tracks that will guide the future of the Mile High City, but can the guy hang with Sim City?

When he first sits down at the computer in the gray conference room of the Webb Municipal Office Building, Park says that he hasn't played the game in years, although his twelve-year-old son, Jonny, owns an earlier edition. He listens attentively while I explain the different controls. Then, running the cursor past the various woodland creatures scampering through the digital foothills, Park begins by clicking on the road function and laying down a main strip on a north-south axis. He then bisects this road with a cross street and lays out the rest of his streets in a traditional grid pattern. On the screen, one of his advisors -- the city planner, actually -- pops up and tells Park to zone for development.

"How do I do that?" he asks, fidgeting with the touch pad. I show him the icon to select residential, commercial or industrial zoning. Along Main Street, he puts in a small police station, a firehouse and a medical clinic, zoning it medium-density commercial. Along adjacent streets, he goes for medium-density residential. He creates a separate industrial area southwest of the town and places three wind turbines and a water tower there to produce the city's power and water.

The market economy jumps into the fray, and little cubes of scaffolding begin to rise from the dust. In their place appear factories, then a few diners and shops, then some small, single-story homes. Confident of his infrastructure, Park puts the time control on "cheetah speed," and the years tick by like seconds. Soon there are larger, low-income apartment buildings popping up next to brick row houses, while on the next block, a taco joint makes way for a retail store. In an empty lot at the center of town, he puts in an elementary school and surrounds it with parks. By now, the population of Parktown has grown to 600. He checks his budget and worries about costs eating at his coffer of 438,000 "Simoleons" -- so he slashes the funding for school buses. "Why would we need buses," he says, "when we've created a walkable city?" Parktown soon passes its 23rd anniversary. He clicks the zoom function and examines the little pixilated people jumping around in the park and scuttling down the sidewalks. He circles the area with the cursor, clearly pleased. "It looks like we've got a nice little neighborhood springing up here," he says.

The layout of Parktown is not unlike that of the small capital city of Pierre, South Dakota, where Park grew up. His parents fled North Korea in the 1950s, started medical internships in Minneapolis, and later completed their training in Chicago. Park was two years old, the youngest of three children, when his father was offered a position at a radiologist's office that later grew into a partnership. The family moved to Pierre, the only Koreans in a population of 15,000. Park has fond memories of the place and says his family relished the nuances of small-town America. Although Park wasn't aware of it at the time, he was absorbing the city's classic design, which is almost inseparable from the childhood experience he evokes now. For example, riding his bike with friends down the main street, which is bumpered on one end by the American Legion cabin and on the other by the county courthouse; on a perpendicular street are the state capitol and other government buildings. Pierre's civic structures are located in prominent places, a pattern that Park follows when the citizens of Parktown request a church. "A civic building should have a civic location," he says. He locates the intersection that serves as the city center and drags the cursor five blocks up Main Street. Then he places the domed church in a bookend position at the top of Main, where it stands like a cathedral in a European city or a white steeple in turn-of-the-century America.

But despite all of its attributes, or perhaps because of them, Parktown violates the standards of many of today's municipalities. The higher density and the traditional main street abutting the block pattern of housing contrasts starkly with contemporary city-planning style, which advocates separating residential and commercial uses into self-contained clusters and connecting them via large arterial freeways. After World War II, Park says, planners began writing zoning laws that would, among other things, make car travel more efficient and segregate uses into increasingly finite categories. "It's what we know today as suburban sprawl," he says.

Sprawl -- there's that dirty word. In the public mind, it translates to big-box centers surrounded by acres of parking lot and maze-like subdivisions. Sprawl is the main reason that other word, "growth," has taken on such a derogatory meaning with many Coloradans. It signifies more of the same -- or, to be precise, more of the sameness. It's America's rural daydream set in an increasingly cookie-cutter urban nightmare of long commutes, smog and loss of open lands. In most places in the United States, jumping behind the wheel isn't so much an option as a requirement, and buildings are designed to be abandoned or demolished every few decades in favor of greener pastures -- or the pastures that used to be there before the suburban development.

The new-urbanism movement, with architects, planners and developers in the lead, started in the early '90s as a reaction to the type of sprawl patterns in which most American live and work. James Howard Kunstler calls it "the Geography of Nowhere" in his 1993 book of the same name, which describes the collective amnesia created by these non-places and the devastating effect it's had on the civic realm. Kunstler was assigned reading in the "Solving Urban Sprawl: Smart Growth and the New Urbanism" class that Park taught last semester at the University of Colorado at Denver; he's teaching another planning class this semester. His graduate students read an Atlantic Monthly article in which Kunstler rails against current zoning. "Laws," he writes, "prevent the building of places that human beings can feel good about and can afford to live in. Laws forbid us to build places that are worth caring about."

For planners such as Park, the first order of business is to understand the character of the community they're trying to create -- "like what we're drawing here," he says, pointing at the screen. "Even just a main street, even just neighborhoods" -- and then refine the zoning laws to reflect that vision. This was one of his prime accomplishments in Milwaukee, and if Sim City had more specific zoning functions, he would allow the development of mixed-use buildings (retail on the bottom, offices and apartments up top) and transit-oriented development hubs. The idea is to use public-transportation focal points not only as a way to move people around the city, but also as a way to foster development that has "a unique sense of place." With the passage of FasTracks, such transit-oriented development opportunities abound not only in Denver, but in the entire metro area, which gets a new-urbanism evangelical like Park really worked up.

"Think of the best cities in the world," he says, "the most famous, the most renowned, the most beautiful." This is a question he persistently poses to business leaders, architects and neighborhood groups; the answers usually include New York, Paris, London and San Francisco. "The common traits of those cities is that they all have transit," he continues. "Many of these cities are actually much older than Denver, and they have transit systems that not only help maintain the densities, but also the value and the quality of the places." On the other end of the memorable-city spectrum are the ever-extending megalopolises of Phoenix, Houston and Los Angeles, built largely post-WWII and all noteworthy for their 24-hour traffic jams.

"Denver is at the point where we can look at other cities that are growing and say, ŒWell, do we want to grow like that? Or do we want to be smart now and make proper investments and infrastructure, and balance in between automobiles and transit?' We're going to grow," Park says. "There's no doubt about it. More land is going to get covered over, more of the environment is going to get eaten up, more habitat is going to be replaced. But do we have to tread so heavily as we normally do when we're auto-dependent? We can put in the bone structure to accommodate growth in ways that don't require so much land."

It's a good thing that Park is concerned about the environment, because while he was talking about FasTracks, the pollution indicator on the screen turned red. "What's that?" he says, squinting. A click on the air-quality chart shows that an intense cloud of smog and fumes has formed above the industrial area, which, it turns out, was zoned too close to the town. As a result, the buildings in south Parktown are beginning to look run-down. Property values have dropped and crime has increased. Park has two options: bulldoze the worst polluters and lose a significant portion of his tax revenue, or raise taxes on dirty industry and hope it will eventually be replaced by a lighter form of manufacturing. But since his budget is already in the red -- and because eminent domain is like crack cocaine for planners -- Park opts for the latter, raising the tax for that sector to 10.9 percent. This solution doesn't satisfy him, but he doesn't have time to dwell on it. Elementary school teachers are threatening to go on strike because -- what else is new? -- they are underpaid and understaffed. Park bumps up funds for the school and zones six plots along Main Street for medium-density commercial. Businesses spring up almost as soon he opens the land to development. "That happened quickly," he says. The jobs rating makes a jump, as does Parktown's population. "I'm going to give the development director a bonus this year."

Park pulls a Blackberry from his coat pocket and checks his schedule. Most days are crammed with at least half a dozen meetings with department heads, planning staff or city building inspectors. He looks once more at Parktown buzzing along. At the bottom of the screen, a newspaper headline pops up that says "Citizens Are Calm and Content in Parktown."

"Not bad," he says, standing. "You can't ask for much more than that."

Dealing with real citizens is an entirely different game. At the Mayor's Leadership Conference in early November, representatives of the approximately 300 registered neighborhood groups in Denver mingle with other residents in a noisy room in the Denver Water building, known also as "Gotham City Hall." Chief of Police Gerry Whitman is advising an elderly woman against allowing her car to idle unattended on cold mornings. She excuses herself and crosses the room to join the half-dozen citizens who surround Park in what looks like a mix between a huddle and a firing squad. The sound in the room is so bad that people have begun to speak in a near shout, but Park doesn't raise his voice. This forces those around him to tip their heads forward and point their ears toward his mouth like they're listening to a special report on an old-time radio.

"I'm not against developers," says David Miller, a West University Park resident who's been brainstorming "some real grassroots, militant tactics" to prevent new residential units from going up near his home. "I'm against the trash developers. Any Architecture 101 student can see that they're building some piece of trash up there. I'm talking about the character of the neighborhood.... I'm trying to figure out whose side people are on."

"Well," Park answers, "my tendency is not to look for creating more regulations..."

A woman jumps in: "In California, didn't they come up with a rule that said that you had to have all the tenants signed up that would actually live in the building? This way, developers at least wouldn't be able to build on spec."

"Yeah, yeah," Miller shakes his finger. "I like that. It could work around our spot."

"I think the best thing would be to meet with the homebuilders," Park says.

The neighbors look back incredulously.

"No, I'm serious," he says.

The woman shakes her head, "It doesn't work."

"The problem is, who are the purveyors of the quality of design?" Park points out. "When you rely on regulations to do that, I'll tell you -- the problem with regulations is they create the bottom-line mentality of what we can expect."

"Well, there has to be something we can do!" Miller answers. "Now, I don't want any bureaucratic excuses. You guys are supposed to impress us." He then relates his idea that neighbors park hideous old cars with signs derogatory to builders "in front of the buildings so nobody buys them."

"Do you think that will be effective?" Park asks.

"Well, I'd like to hear better ideas, something tangible," Miller responds. "You're the one that's supposed to be the visionary."

Historian Phil Goodstein is skeptical of any new planning initiatives. His book Denver in Our Time, designed to "do for Denver what Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States did for the country," takes issue with the idea that Denver must always grow and remake itself in the image of a bigger urban city; according to Goodstein, that notion is motivated by "extreme provincial insecurity" among the Queen City's elite. New urbanism is "one of the biggest farces," he says. "You're going to see something that you constantly see in city planning. Every city planner is always the pioneer. He's always the visionary. He's always creating breakthroughs. And the question is, who did this before? Who screwed this up?"

In the '60s and '70s, the perception was that most urban places were shabby, cramped places that needed to be cleared out. A 1964 watercolor depicts the vision that planners at the time had for Denver: a colorful, Jetsons-like pictorial of modern glass skyscrapers surrounded by a buzzing system of freeways. But to implement this ideal, all of lower downtown save Union Station would have to be leveled, and any street action would be extinguished. Generations earlier, Denver had been a model example of the City Beautiful movement, which produced an extensive park system that included Civic Center Park and numerous public amenities; in the '60s, it began demolishing dozens of buildings throughout downtown to make way for parking lots and office towers. The destruction might have pushed all the way to Cherry Creek if Dana Crawford hadn't bought the entire block of buildings that now make up Larimer Square and later pushed for protecting lower downtown as a historic district.

That's where Denver's future mayor got his start as a businessman, when he opened the Wynkoop Brewing Co. in 1988. Fifteen years later, in June 2003, he began filling out his new cabinet. Planning director Jennifer Moulton, who'd been with the city for a dozen years and Historic Denver before that, would soon die of a rare blood disorder, and Hickenlooper immediately formed a committee to seek out candidates who could successfully execute Blueprint Denver, the transportation and land-use plan spearheaded by Moulton.

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.

"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.

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.

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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