By Marc Eisen
Peter Park, the star urban planner behind Milwaukee’s downtown revival, returned to Wisconsin Friday to discuss the lessons he’s learned in his new work as Denver’s planning chief.
“We need to look at transportation and development together. They’re not separate,” he told a gathering of several hundred environmentalists at the Promega Corporation’s Biopharmaceutical Technology Center in Fitchburg.
Park, 46, is working the land-use side of the most ambitious transportation project underway in the United States — the $4.7 billion FasTracks program. It promises 119 miles of light-rail and commuter-rail tracks by 2017, including 70 train stops that are expected to be the focal point of new residential and commercial development in the Denver area.
“Doing all this at once is crazy and scary,” Park admitted. “But if we’re going to grow [the transit system], now’s a great time for it.” Metropolitan Denver’s population of about 2.7 million, he noted, is expected to hit 4.3 million by 2035.
Park’s talk to the “Bringing Bioneers to Wisconsin” conference was a stark reminder that Wisconsin’s marquee cities, Milwaukee and Madison, are laggards in sorting out their 21st century transportation systems.
Suburban protests killed a planned light-rail connection between Milwaukee and Waukesha County in the 1990s. A proposed commuter rail connecting Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha with Chicago’s Metra rail system is facing similar fire. Transit planning in Dane County has proceeded at a snail’s pace, though the Dane County Board has just approved a skeletal regional transportation authority. In both cities, conservatives and talk radio hosts raise the cry that rail construction is a costly boondoggle that will do little to relieve highway congestion.
The Denver area followed a very different script. In 2004, voters approved (by a comfortable 57 percent to 43 percent margin) the $4.7 billion FasTracks plan funded by a .4 cent sales tax. Led by Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, 31 mayors in the seven-county Denver region endorsed the plan. In the balkanized world of Wisconsin’s regional politics, such shared vision is, in a word, inconceivable.
It was Hickenlooper who set his sights on luring Park away from Milwaukee. Park had captured national attention for turning Mayor John Norquist’s expansive vision of walkable, neighborhood-focused development into the nuts and bolts of city policy.
“Peter and John saw eye-to eye on almost every planning and development issue,” says Stephen Filmanowicz, a longtime Norquist aide.
The mayor and his planner’s work included the Riverwalk path that enlivened street life (and new housing) along the Milwaukee River; the audacious leveling of the Park East Freeway spur and replacing it with a neighborhood-friendly boulevard; fashioning the upscale Beerline neighborhood out of an industrial brownfield; and devising a new downtown plan and zoning code that banished suburban standards and stressed downtown housing, mixed-use streets and a streamlined approval process for developers who had the right ideas.
“I need more than two hands to count the number of times that someone brought in a plan for a strip mall or some other ill-conceived project and walked out with a decent urban plan after Peter took out his pen and started drawing,” says Filmanowicz, who worked in the planning office before becoming Norquist’s press secretary.
Shortly after Norquist resigned as mayor in 2003 to become president and chief executive officer of the Congress for New Urbanism and moved to Chicago, Park accepted Hickenlooper’s job offer and headed to Denver to run a planning office roughly four times the size of Milwaukee’s.
Whitney Gould, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s formidable architectural critic, summed up Park’s work by saying he “has made Milwaukee a national model of how to reinvent communities battered by freeways, demolition and suburbanization.”
Gould added that Park’s admirers even compared him to Baron Georges Haussmann, the famed planner who remade Paris in the 19th century.
Much of Park’s Fitchburg speech, as well as his comments in an earlier interview, focused on the mechanics of restoring urban character and rejecting the suburban alternative of multiple car lanes, sprawling surface parking lots and segregated land uses.
“Urban streets, squares and blocks make for unique urban places,” he said. “It’s a matter of seizing opportunities rather than managing growth. We can fundamentally reshape our growth pattern, but we need to plan and engage our communities up front.”
Park added with a disarming candor: “I’m a planner, but it’s not like I’m an expert. I know a couple of things, but I need to know what folks think about their neighborhoods. What’s important to this place?”
The irony, he said, is that the most attractive neighborhoods in both Denver and Milwaukee are products of the old streetcar lines that once served city neighborhoods.
“When people say transit-oriented development is new, I wonder what’s that about?” he said. “Do they know South Pearl Street [in Denver]? That’s where streetcars used to run, and it’s one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the city.”
Streetcar lines (some 300 miles in Denver) ruled at a time when homes were smaller, shopping was nearby and parking was relatively scarce because of high transit usage. But while those transit lines are long gone, their DNA remains to shape modern day life in the neighborhood, according to Park.
“I see my job as extending that urban fabric into the newer parts of the city,” he said. To this end, the 70 proposed transit stations stops weigh heavily in Denver’s planning.
Park and his planners want the stations tailored to their surroundings. A station serving the downtown business district would look different than one serving an urban neighborhood. Same would be true with a small-town Main Street and college-campus stations. Each would have its distinctive feel.
The goal is anything but radical. Park sees transit stations catalyzing private investment. He believes developers will want to put housing and stores near them.
That’s not so much the case with bus stops and their flexible siting. “With a bus system it’s a little more fuzzy,” Park said. “Certainty is what really matters, especially as we pull out of this great recession. Those who build really want certainty.”
Of course, there’s never certainty with development. Markets change, economies shift, political favor reverses and 50 other things can go wrong. FasTracks has had its own bruising encounter with reality, according to press reports.
The recession has punctured the revenue expectations for the new sales tax of four cents on a $10 purchase. Projected construction costs, meanwhile, have soared to almost $7 billion. Analysts say that the financial double whammy will necessitate either a referendum on another sales tax hike or a slower construction schedule that will stretch beyond the 2017 completion date now envisioned.
In the interview, Park grimaced when he acknowledged the financial complications, but basically was unperturbed. The recession has battered the suburbs worse than it has the older downtown neighborhoods, he pointed out.
“It’s the those big houses that sit on the market the longest,” Park said. “I think it’s a good thing is that a lot of folks are realizing the virtues and values of the not-so-big house.”
In any case, Denver is already enjoying a big surge in transit ridership. Federal data shows ridership almost doubling, from about 5 percent of city commuters using transit in 2004 to 9 percent in 2008.
Park is optimistic. “You got to be!” he said with the bright confidence of man who thinks he sees the future.