The man had a plan long ago -- now it's reaping rewards
THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE (California)
September 19, 2006
Fifteen years ago, Peter Calthorpe was just another Bay Area visionary with an imaginative intellect and absolute conviction about how the world ought to be.
Today, ideas still tumble in all directions when the 56-year-old Berkeley planner speaks. But now his client list ranges from the sheikh of Dubai to the state of Louisiana, and he's about to receive an award from a developer trade group with 30,000 members.
If Calthorpe feels the slightest awkwardness at being honored by an industry that many intellectuals instinctively loathe, he isn't letting on.
"It feels great," he grinned after a breakfast conversation that caromed from topic to topic. "I find a lot of developers to be a lot more progressive than bureaucrats and neighborhood groups."
When I met Calthorpe in 1990 he was living on a Sausalito houseboat and was a cult figure among planners because of his pamphlet "The Pedestrian Pocket Book: A New Suburban Design Strategy," which came out in 1989. Other planners had their say in the booklet as well, but the core idea was his: with massaging, the segregated land-use patterns of suburbia could be replaced by districts where residents were within five-minute walks of shops, jobs, parks and mass transit.
"The unique qualities of place are continually consumed by chain-store architecture, scaleless office parks and monotonous subdivisions," he wrote back then. "Pedestrian Pockets are utopian -- they involve the directed choice of an ideal rather than of laissez-faire planning ...."
The twist? Unlike other would-be messiahs, Calthorpe didn't settle for being a know-it-all. He worked on ways to package a radical notion -- scrapping the suburban norm -- in a pragmatic way that would intrigue developers and municipalities looking for new (and marketable) ways to grow.
"You have to take the forces at play and redirect them. You can't pretend they don't exist," he said between bites of scrambled egg whites. "I wanted to change the course of development, and you don't transform the paradigm one house at a time."
Here's the scale he works on instead: the former Stapleton airport in Denver is being redeveloped as a 4,700-acre community with 12,000 homes based on a plan devised by Calthorpe and his 40-person firm. Kennecott Utah Copper Corp. hired Calthorpe Associates to plan a whopping 144 square miles near Salt Lake City. In Dubai, he designed a cluster of islands that form a palm frond ("the sheikh said that's the shape") that eventually could be home to 500,000 people.
Back in the Bay Area, Cal- thorpe is involved in crafting a plan for the former Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland. He also worked with Forest City Enterprises, a frequent client, on the Uptown project planned for downtown Oakland.
But the most interesting job right now is outside New Orleans; Calthorpe's firm is part of the team advising the Louisiana Recovery Authority on how the southern part of the state can rebound from the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, with an emphasis on ecological steps such as wetlands restoration.
After spending roughly one week per month around New Orleans for much of this year, Calthorpe sounds like any other enamored outsider: "It truly is one of the great places in America. It's got soul and integrity and culture ... We can't let that disappear."
Next month, meanwhile, Calthorpe will be awarded the J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development by the Urban Land Institute. Not only does he get flattering praise for "redefining the models of urban and suburban growth in America," there's a $100,000 prize.
But if the redefinition has occurred -- and no matter what you might think when you drive past dreary Central Valley housing tracts along Interstate 5, the change is real -- the revolution still has a ways to go.
Calthorpe and his fellow crusaders fashion themselves as "new urbanists," and they've made remarkable headway. But what happens on the way to construction, as good ideas are altered by bottom lines and marketing plans, can be less seductive.
Real life isn't as fetching as the plans. People may want a cafe or wine shop within walking distance but for real shopping they still hop in the car and head to Target or Wal-Mart.
You see the impact of reality on Calthorpe's first major planning project: Laguna West near Sacramento, which began in 1991. His client: current gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides.
"He just showed up in a lecture I was giving at Berkeley, handed me his card and said he wanted to talk about hiring me," Calthorpe recalled. "I thought it was just a few houses, but at the time I had no work. So I called him." Calthorpe is an Angelides booster, calling him "heroic -- he was the pioneer of smart growth." But the first Laguna West homes appeared during the '90s recession and potential buyers didn't know what to make of houses with the garage tucked onto an alley in back. And there's no transit connection, and no cozy shops.
All of which Calthorpe concedes. His optimistic take is that progress is a gradual thing. Developers and buyers are more comfortable now with a type of suburbia that is different from the 1950s norm.
"There's no such thing as instant community, but you can build the right foundation," he argued at breakfast. "What we're seeing is way better than the template it replaced. Given time it will be as rich and diverse and complex as all the places we love."
The last 15 years have shown that with vision and drive, Calthorpe and others have been able to start altering the shape of American communities. The next 15 years will show the extent to which form shapes content -- the content of our lives.