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Where are the Visionary Developers?

"The secret of Disney is doing things you don't need, and doing them well, and realizing that you needed them all along...Walt Disney was ahead of everyone, always."

-Isaac Asimov, interviewed by Leonard Maltin

Tim Halbur | July 7, 2011, 11am PDT
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"The secret of Disney is doing things you don't need, and doing them well, and realizing that you needed them all along...Walt Disney was ahead of everyone, always."

-Isaac Asimov, interviewed by Leonard Maltin

 Walt Disney and EPCOTAmong my friends and colleagues, I tend to get pegged as the Disney guy. That's fair - I have an undeniable obsession with Walt and his team of Imagineers, and the unique creations they brought into being. There are obvious reasons- the Disney approach to theming and attention to detail are responsible for fascinating built environments. And in the years before his death, he got obsessed with urban planning and put plans in motion to build an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT), a planned technotopia that would house 20,000 people. So there is plenty of fodder for someone interested in architecture, planning and public space to chew on. 

But after obsessing over Walt's futurism and vision for years, I've been asking myself, "Why? Why is this long-dead animator still as interesting to me as more rigorous urbanists like Jane Jacobs or Jan Gehl?" In truth, his vision for EPCOT was naive, and was a fairly uncomplicated take on Ebenezer Howard's garden plan. And I would find a downtown Imagineered down to the minute details oppressive. 

What was unique about Walt Disney, I've concluded - and is lacking in so much of today's world - is the combination of vision, craft, and cash. 

As planners (if we're lucky) we get to create plans for neighborhoods and downtowns that lay out a vision for development that is forward-thinking while simultaneously building on the history and character of a place. But we know that developers are truly responsible for what gets built - we can't dictate if a building houses a wonderful store with local character or a Cash for Gold store (the unfortunate new tenant of a new mixed-use project I pass every day). We can have local design standards and commissions, but we can't stop a developer from creating a cheap plastic knockoff of an historic lintel. We're reliant, for the most part, on what comes in the door. 

Meanwhile, developers aren't without the desire to build developments that people will love, and will last. But they often lack vision, or the knowledge and experience, that planners have developed. Managing architects and the daily business of construction takes its own sort of expertise, so its not surprising that developers have a different focus. And while they have the ability to pull cash together, their loan providers are often skittish of anything unproven and prefer to see projects that are familiar models - even as the market is rapidly changing its preferences.

When I look at 90% of today's new developments, I can't help but get the feeling that the developer is trying to meet the vision that local planners have laid out but they don't really FEEL it. We're getting new multi-family, 4-6 story, mixed-use TOD, but there's a cookie-cutter feeling to most. Like the infamous "little boxes" of suburbia, most of these new multi-family constructions feel of a type, like they were pressed through a Play-Doh mold. I'm not saying the building below is especially terrible, but where is it? I swear I've seen this exact same building in several cities.

 A random mixed-use building 

And that's what is so remarkable about Walt Disney. He was the ultimate developer: he had unique visions, he wouldn't compromise on bringing those visions to reality, and he wasn't afraid to spend the money to do it. He was often on the edge of bankruptcy because he would pour not only his heart and soul into every project but also every cent he had. He understood how to manage and inspire craftspeople and designers to build to his specifications. And while we're now in the post-Robert Moses world where community input is an imperative, I can't help but think that Walt knew how to sell a project and would win any NIMBY over to his side.

So where are the visionary developers of today?

I call on the Planetizen readers to enlighten us and show us examples of great vision, new developments that are inspired and have heart. Size doesn't matter - the smallest building can be inspired. Can visionary development happen in the 21st century? 


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