Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013
By Patrick Flanagan
|Photo by Robin May|
Director of Design/Lafayette Downtown Development Authority
Meet Geoff Dyer, a 38-year-old urban designer with nearly two decades of experience, a Colorado native and the newest addition to the Lafayette Downtown Development Authority. Dyer comes to Lafayette from Calgary, Canada, where he worked for PlaceMakers Canada — a sister company to Placemakers LLC in the U.S., the design firm co-founded by DDA CEO Nathan Norris. In announcing the new design director position back in July, Norris dubbed Dyer the “rock star of the design world.”
ABiz recently sat down for an interview/Q&A session with Dyer to get a better idea of his urban design background, the ins and outs of his newly created role with DDA and his plans/goals for Downtown Lafayette.
Tell us a about yourself: Where are you from, where have you been and what led you to a career in urban design?
I grew up in suburban Denver, Colo. Both sides of my family have deep roots in Colorado, but my grandfather’s Denver was much different than the classic 1970s car-culture that I experienced. Cradled safely away in a residential cul-de-sac, and confined within the arterial streets that surrounded my subdivision, Aurora was a place that you had to drive everywhere, for everything. It was anything but a city. At the time, the downtown and inner city just seemed like this old, dingy place from the past, and the suburbs were just where I thought people now lived. This was especially true of the 1980s and 1990s where downtown Denver was simply a place for people to go to work — not the great urban neighborhood it once was or soon would become. To escape the boredom of the suburbs, there was something compelling and nostalgic about the old city. I remember taking the bus downtown to skateboard on the concrete plazas and furniture without a single soul to tell us otherwise. We would walk the empty sidewalks and just absorb the urbanism. Today, of course, Downtown Denver is in a full renaissance with the redevelopment of places like the “Lodo” area and a whole population of residents that simply didn’t exist when I was a kid.
My upbringings in Aurora were certainly formative for my urban design career. While I had no frame of reference back then, there was always this determination to find something better. I didn’t really have my epiphany until my last years at Arizona State. Disillusioned by two years of avante garde modernist architecture training and repelled from the non-design policy planning orientation of planning programs, I entered into an experimental degree in “how to be a developer in the sprawling context of Phoenix.” It was at that time that one of our developer professors, a VP for a major U.S. homebuilder, assigned us the newly minted Geography of Nowhere by James Kunstler. All the sudden it all made sense: the how’s, why’s and what’s of the suburban landscape I grew up in was fully explained. It was a revelation. Not only were the suburbs not the only way to go, but there was an entire reemerging field called “urban design” and a whole world of fantastic urban places to explore.
While I was in Arizona, I met and married a Canadian girl. Attracted by the urbanism of Vancouver, British Columbia, we moved up there for a year, and then over to Calgary where her family is based. For the past 15 years I followed my passion to become a leader in the field of urban design. I went out to learn from the best in my field, got a master’s degree in urban design from the University of Calgary, and ran a successful urban design practice for 10 years. While it was wonderful starting my family up in Alberta — Calgary has much to offer young families — I am excited to be back down in the U.S.
Aside from Nathan Norris, who it’s fair to say played a big role in your decision to join DDA’s team, what other factors would you say influenced your move so far down South?
The truth is, I was not really looking for a job. I was, however, looking for a way to focus in on a single project — take the bull by the horns and see it actually get built. With urban design as such a specialized niche, I have spent much of my career on the road, and rarely close to home: San Diego, New Mexico, Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida, all the places farthest from my home in Calgary. But in doing this, I grew a kind of affection for the South. After witnessing what a downtown like Denver’s can become, Lafayette struck me as a place that has all the ingredients for a similar transformation: strong civic leadership, great Downtown amenities and culture, a strong economy and a forward-thinking momentum. When Nathan Norris started planting the seeds for a world-class model for a development and design center, I paid attention. When the opportunity came, Lafayette seemed like that single project I was looking for, and I went after it.
How would you educate those not in the know about what you do, and for the community as a whole what would you list as the benefits they will experience by our local government taking a proactive approach and implementing an urban designer’s methodologies in planning our city’s future development, especially as it concerns Downtown?
Streets and public spaces are the defining character of a downtown, and ultimately the region. It is not only the quality of the streets and sidewalks themselves, but also the character of the buildings that front them (or the lack of buildings that front them). Urban design considers the design of the city as a whole, serving as the nexus for the many professionals involved with city building such as architects, landscape architects, planners, engineers. In a redevelopment context such as a downtown, the focus is on the character and quality of streets and public spaces, the massing and character of private buildings and how they interface with those streets and public spaces, and ultimately how all those things look when they are put together as a streetscape.
As a consultant, my role was typically to go into a city, spend a week creating plans, codes and visions, and then hoping that I’ve left enough behind so that the plan will be implemented. What I’ve learned is the implementation is the real hard work, and it takes persistence and ongoing expertise. With an urban designer on staff — a unique yet increasingly necessary role — I will be able to work on plans and ideas just as a consultant would do, but remain on the ground as a constant presence to see the vision through and keep a consistent thread between the many players.
One of our primary goals for Downtown Lafayette is to address the pent up demand for Downtown housing. Through our Development and Design Center, I will be offering free conceptual design services to landowners and developers in order to help speed redevelopment. In addition to the design role, we will serve as a third-party concierge that will help to remove barriers that inevitably arise with the complexity of stakeholders involved with downtown redevelopment. At the same time, I will also be looking at streetscape projects associated with redevelopment, new public spaces, educational outreach, and serving as an urban design advisory to the city as a whole.
In the short amount of time you’ve been on the job (and in Lafayette for that matter), what three projects would you deem the most vital to developing Downtown for the 21st century?
Build a great new residential street: We need residential opportunities downtown, and a single parcel isn’t enough. We need to create a great new residential street: one with shops and restaurants on the first level, and a range of residential choices above. A great success like that will provide the showcase we need to return the Downtown to a great neighborhood.
Make Downtown streets great people places: Downtown streets should be about pedestrians first, and vehicles second. A sign of success is when pedestrians feel comfortable roaming the streets. South Beach, the French Quarter and even Paris are our benchmarks. While narrow sidewalks and intrusive utility points are immediate targets within the downtown, car-focused streets like Johnston and Congress are also on the agenda. Time to move beyond Jefferson and make a great Downtown that works for people first.
Make the ingredients work together: The Downtown bar scene has its advocates and its critics. But right now, it’s one of the most identifiable things happening downtown. Great downtowns are able to serve as a regional center for entertainment and culture while at the same time providing a unique residential neighborhood: both in the action and on the edge of the action. We need to get there.