Business Q & A

A conversation with David Dixon

It takes a lot to make David Dixon pause. Like the age question. "Well, I'm old," Dixon says, chuckling, "62, I guess." That's about all that slows the principal in charge of planning and urban design at Goody Clancy, the man who's leading Wichita's effort to plan its downtown revitalization.

Because the mention of Wichita produces a staccato, rapid-fire succession of ideas from a man who loves his work far too much to ponder retirement.

"Look at downtown Wichita, where investors have sat and watched buildings lose value for 40 or 50 years," he said. "It's a pattern that has reversed, and we're here to help you take advantage of those changes."

Dixon's resume of favorite downtown projects is far-reaching: the post-Katrina recovery of downtown New Orleans; Dublin, Ohio; two projects in Boston.

And Wichita, "a wonderful, absolutely terrific downtown," Dixon said.

Why is urban planning such a passion for you?

"I have been surprised at the depth of how strong I feel that urban communities have an opportunity ahead of them to create the most splendid urban societies since before the Great Depression, in a more humane environment.

"The forces that basically have created fragmented, socially segmented environments have now changed and are more pro-urban, pro-mixed use, pro-social interactions.

"It's painful for me to see communities not reach out for this opportunity and capture the benefits from this."

Define urban planning.

"Well, what's a lot more interesting than building design is the public face of a project, helping the community develop the underlying understanding that helps them make the changes that unlock this kind of potential.

"It takes different forms in different communities. What we're doing is always trying to figure out the shared underlying qualities and goals that shape the projects and goals of a community.

"We owe it to ourselves and future generations to create patterns of development that are physically, environmentally and socially healthier."

What's the biggest challenge your group faces in a redevelopment project?

"The single biggest challenge is helping people understand how quickly we are changing as a society, how quickly our economy is changing, how quickly the environmental and health challenges that we face are becoming apparent.

"What is very intriguing to me is when you poll people under 35, people who don't have the life history people my age do, the answers are very different. They are more interested in living healthier lives, and in some ways I find that hugely heartening.

"It's not at all unfair for a developer, a community activist, a city official, a journalist, a banker to say that for the last 30 or 40 years of their professional life, they've made decisions based on a certain understanding. It's not at all surprising for people like that to be resistant to making difficult decisions."

You're tackling Wichita's downtown at a time when there's some sentiment against public-private partnerships. How big an issue is that going forward?

"It's just another challenge. Frankly, revitalizing a terrific downtown like Wichita is easier today.

"The politics may have become more difficult, but the market economics are so much more positive, and the ability to demonstrate success and encourage people to get interested is so much easier.

"I also need to note that New Orleans is a place that absolutely doesn't believe in public investment. It may vote Democratic, but it's a very conservative political climate. Dublin voted for McCain, a very affluent urban community. Oklahoma City is a very Republican community.

"But all of those places are very pragmatic. The people there don't make decisions based on an ideology. They made hard-nosed decisions based on what's good for their downtown.

"I have a pretty strong faith that will work in Wichita."