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Expert from Afar PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 12 December 2000 18:00
Clad in his signature bow tie, standing before approximately 150 members of Daven-portOne at a breakfast last week, Brian Vandewalle sketched out his vision for revitalizing downtown Davenport. The presentation included a slide show and plenty of colorful buzzwords, from the “golden rectangle” to “economic constellations” to “the silicon prairie. ” He discussed the importance of clustering attractions and development, and of focusing on establishing “districts” instead of individual projects to draw people.

“Some people say there’s no rocket science in that,” Vandewalle said.

A consultant from Madison, Wisconsin, Vandewalle is a self-described “urban economist” who heads the firm Vandewalle & Associates. Beginning with the Moline Center Plan and John Deere Commons projects in the mid-’90s, Vandewalle’s company has been involved with virtually every major renewal project in the Quad Cities, receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees. He currently has contracts for consulting on redevelopment efforts in Davenport, Moline, and East Moline, as well as at the Quad City International Airport, and many of these are long-term relationships. The City of Davenport also hired Vandewalle to draft the joint application for Vision Iowa money for Davenport, the City of Bettendorf, and Scott County. [See sidebar for a description of Vandewalle & Associates’ Quad Cities projects.]

The man is everywhere, and his vision is playing a large role in determining whether and how the Quad Cities will become more economically vibrant over the next few decades.

But Vandewalle's rocket-science comment raises some important questions. He says that if not exactly rocket science, the work his firm does is challenging and requires expertise and experience that most communities don’t have. “It is not an easy thing to do,” he claims. “We’re experts at this sort of thing.”

Yet there are people who’ve worked with Vandewalle who question the necessity of hiring his firm, and out-of-town consultants in general. Anchor projects were often in the works before his involvement, and the principles he espouses should by now feel very familiar to anybody who’s paid attention to his work in Moline, or to nationwide movements to revive central cities.

“You look at these reports, and the only thing that changed is the name of the town,” said Perry Gere, a partner in Gere Dismer Architects who has worked with Vandewalle on multiple projects in the Quad Cities. One could argue that many of the design concepts by Vandewalle & Associates are formulaic and could be overlaid on many midwestern communities.

Critics’ first and major assertion, though, is that all the projects that have happened or are in the works probably could have been completed without Vandewalle’s help.

What’s being proposed and executed is primarily the redevelopment of historic or dilapidated areas, Gere noted. “That’s a good idea in anybody’s mind,” he said. “We’re not creating anything here that’s earth-shattering.”

It’s easy to find people who sing Vandewalle’s praises and testify to his importance in turning around Moline’s downtown and guiding other projects past the conceptual stage. But what those people say Vandewalle brings to their projects is often vague, and it’s difficult to figure out exactly what they’re paying for.

Place-Making

Brian Vandewalle grew up in Indiana and studied architecture and urban economics at Ball State University. He worked mainly as a government planner before starting a partnership 23 years ago. After five years, Vandewalle bought out his partner, and Vandewalle & Associates was born.

“Our primary focus is ensuring that central cities are able to sustain themselves,” he said in an interview last week with the River Cities’ Reader. That’s another way of saying that communities must achieve “economic critical mass” – another of his regular buzzwords. “Place-making is what we’re talking about,” he said.

The concept of “place-making” is the heart of Vandewalle’s work in the Quad Cities. The goal is to create downtowns and interior neighborhoods that attract people – visitors and residents – and are so compelling that nobody wants to leave. Doing that requires communities to connect projects thematically and geographically and implement them simultaneously.

The major projects – such as the Mark of the Quad Cities or the proposed new Davenport Museum of Art site – are the bricks of renewal, Vandewalle said, but most communities are lacking the “economic mortar [to] … make sure these pieces are linked properly.”

Providing those links should be a short-term job, Vandewalle said, because a redevelopment plan done well ensures that an area remains economically viable. “Once you get that thing going, it’s pretty easy to service it,” he said. “You’re just starting to see it in Moline.”

Vandewalle has structured his company so that it can assist communities from investigation to concept to execution. “The business plan we’ve followed is to try to be interdisciplinary within our company,” he said. His firm has 40 employees, and different parts of the company focus on real estate, market studies, economic development, brownfields, and urban design.

Vandewalle has “an uncanny knack for not only designing the urban project but also delivering it,” said Don Margenthaler, president of the John Deere Foundation. “Most urban designers will give you a plan, a concept, then walk away from them. His firm wants to make it happen.”

John Deere has played a crucial role in establishing Vandewalle’s presence in the Quad Cities. The executive vice presidents of both Renew Moline and Revitalize and Redevelop East Moline (REDEEM) are employees “on loan” from Deere & Company, and both downtown-redevelopment efforts have benefited from the company’s donation of crucial pieces of land. In addition, Margenthaler sits on the board of the Metropolitan Airport Authority of Rock Island County, and his foundation is a major contributor to the new “art at the airport” program that Vandewalle helped establish.

Most of Vandewalle’s business is in the Great Lakes and upper Mississippi River areas. He said his company typically works with “third- and fourth-tier cities” because “there are common problems.”

More than a Marketing Patina

The firm has a strong reputation in its home base of Madison.

“We have a lot of respect for Vandewalle,” said Davie Cieslewicz, director of the land-use organization 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin.

Vandewalle & Associates is “one of the most progressive and cutting-edge planning organizations in Wisconsin.”

In Cottage Grove, Wisconsin, for example, “they’re actually going to create a downtown where before there was none,” Cieslewicz said. Previously, the 3,000-resident suburb of Madison had only strip malls along its main roads.

“We have an opportunity to build a new downtown,” said LaVonne Wandschneider, the Cottage Grove administrator. On December 9, Vandewalle & Associates led a town meeting in which approximately 60 residents discussed what they wanted out of a downtown and built a replica using Legos. “I like the way they involve people,” she said. “It’s up to the community.”

Wandschneider has also worked with Vandewalle & Associates in the Wisconsin towns of Oconomowoc and Edgerton. (In Edgerton and Cottage Grove, Vandewalle & Associates was awarded contracts through the request-for-proposal process.) “They’re probably the best I’ve ever worked with,” she said, citing the firm’s “broad-based experience” and consistency. She added that Cottage Grove gets more experience and resources from Vandewalle & Associates than it could get from hiring a city planner.

Vandewalle has been in especially high demand following the Wisconsin legislature’s passage of a “smart growth” law that requires each city to have a comprehensive plan and offers financial incentives to communities that conserve land by redeveloping property instead of building on farmland or forest.

Vandewalle “has been an advocate of smart growth … for a good decade,” said Cieslewicz. That experience “gives him a leg up” on other consultants.

Smart growth, also known as new urbanism, is something many communities aren’t familiar with. “The whole concept of new urbanism is new to a lot of people,” Cieslewicz said.

Dick Wagner, chair of the Madison Plan Commission, said that many planners didn’t buy into the smart-growth philosophy. “A lot of traditional planners weren’t willing to accept his ideas,” said Wagner, who claims to be an acquaintance of Vandewalle. (The consultant contributed $1,000 to Wagner’s campaign when he ran for county executive in 1997.) “They get beyond traditional questions of land use.”

For instance, Vandewalle & Associates often advocates narrowing streets instead of widening them and mixing uses on relatively small lots to create a Main Street feel, Wagner said.

Vandewalle also works in “context-based development,” Wagner noted, meaning that the firm considers a community’s strengths, weaknesses, and needs in the process of suggesting or executing projects. He develops “a plan for a particular place,” Wagner said.

In a redevelopment plan for Fitchburg, Wisconsin, for example, Vandewalle & Associates incorporated into its concepts the fact that the town is situated on a hill. In much the same way, Vandewalle’s work in the Quad Cities – including in Moline, East Moline, and Davenport – has used the Mississippi River as its focal point.

Most importantly, Wagner said, Vandewalle & Associates tries to change a part of the community and make it self-sustaining, not just sell it in a new way. “This is much different than a marketing patina,” he said.

Perspective and Consensus

If you want to hear people gush, ask most anyone who’s worked with him about Brian Vandewalle.

“If you look at what has been brought here [to Moline], Brian certainly has made an enormous contribution,” said Rick Anderson, the executive vice president of Renew Moline. Vandewalle is a “kind of visionary.” Together, Renew Moline, Gere Dismer, and Vandewalle have implemented a development plan for the John Deere Commons and surrounding areas.

“He’s brought some great ideas,” said Bruce Carter, director of aviation for the Metropolitan Airport Authority. “I’m very, very impressed with what he’s done here. … He’s just got that vision. It’s a vision I haven’t seen before. He’s always looking to the future.”

Vandewalle’s previous work at the airport included creating new signage and re-designing the facility’s parking lots. The firm’s most recent contract has involved helping to establish the airport’s corporate-art and advertising programs, which are meant to complement each other. Carter would not detail what ideas came from Vandewalle, only that he was a member of several teams that developed the ideas.

Carter also said that Vandewalle would probably be consulted in the future on creating aesthetic “transitions” between the old and new airport terminals. “I’m sure we’ll use him again,” he said.

“Brian’s a great consultant,” said Dan Carmody, executive director of the Development Association of Rock Island. (Rock Island was the first of the Quad Cities to use Vandewalle & Associates’ services; the firm did the economic portion of a strategic-planning study for the area between 5th Avenue and the Sylvan Slough.) Carmody sounded the familiar notes of Vandewalle’s experience and perspective, and said that consultants can help build consensus.

When asked what Vandewalle has brought to Quad Cities redevelopment projects, the nearly universal response is “perspective.”

When Vandewalle became involved with projects in Moline, Anderson said, the consultant saw something others had missed. “I was surprised by what he said: ‘Your greatest asset is that river,’” Anderson related. “Our focus was on how we could re-create the downtown area for Moline. … [The riverfront] was our blighted area,” and not something that city leaders had considered developing as part of revitalizing the city. (Using the riverfront as an asset has been a consistent theme with Vandewalle, also cropping up in East Moline and Davenport.)

Outside consultants, Anderson said, are “not tied to familiar things in your community” and “can look at the community through new eyes.”

Vandewalle also reinforced some basic concepts, such as the need for a long-term plan and for anchors. Those things are “certainly in place now,” Anderson said. “The consultants understood that. We now understand that.”

“It takes someone from the outside to show you what you have that you might not have realized,” said Lyn Paris, executive vice president of REDEEM.

Even Vandewalle’s champions say the role of the consultant is as much catalyst as visionary. Firms like Vandewalle & Associates, Cieslewicz said, should “help the community figure out for themselves” what they want to do and how to do it.

This is Vandewalle’s role with downtown Davenport. In January 1999, the firm of Moore Iacofano Goltsman (MIG) presented a “Downtown Davenport Strategic Action Plan” report for which it was paid $90,000. Although it used different terminology, that report is clearly the foundation for Vandewalle’s six-“district” approach, outlining a “core area,” a “government corridor,” an “historical heritage” area, and a “riverfront parks” designation. The MIG report also suggested redeveloping the Redstone Building as a chiropractic museum, while Vandewalle’s plan includes what he calls the “Mississippi Jazz Heritage Center” as the anchor for the “Redstone-River Connection” district.

Although not providing the basic bricks, Vandewalle is helping with the “economic mortar” he stresses so much. In both Moline and Davenport, it’s clear that Vandewalle is building on and refining established development priorities.

“He kept us all headed in the right direction,” said the John Deere Foundation’s Margenthaler. Without Vandewalle, he said, people working on the project tend “to drift off into tangents.”

Old or New Ideas?

Vandewalle doesn’t claim to be a “visionary.” In Davenport, he acknowledged, nearly all the elements of the redevelopment plan were in place when his company was hired earlier this year.

“You already had a plan,” Vandewalle said. “We took it as a given.” The company’s role has been to tie all the elements together.

The same was true in Moline. “The Mark of the Quad Cities was already there” when Vandewalle & Associates was hired to implement Moline’s redevelopment plan, said architect Gere. “What’s there now was part of the very early downtown-development plan in Moline.”

Gere is critical of hiring outside consultants at the expense of local talent.

He said that consultants add a layer to the decision-making process that can make communication difficult. The situation is further complicated by the number of organizations involved in downtown-redevelopment projects. “Rarely is there absolute common ground among that group [the management team],” Gere said. As a result, the people actually designing and building a facility sometimes get mixed signals.

The role of a consultant should be to direct things and ensure consistent communication. “Everything is funneled through one source,” Gere said.

There’s also an issue of the amount of time it takes Vandewalle to get projects off the ground. “Economic development is a slow process,” REDEEM’s Paris said. “We’ve lagged behind our desires and original goals. … We really thought we’d be under construction by now.”

East Moline’s plan, like Davenport’s, involves the creation of a handful of interconnected “districts” that will create traffic between downtown and the riverfront. The East Moline project is known as The Quarter and will include a transportation hub, a sports complex, and a Mississippi River interpretive center, among other things.

Paris maintains that East Moline’s redevelopment plan is stronger because of the wait. He said that the major change to the plan has been the decision to build the sports facility at the same time as other components of the overall project.

Clayton Lloyd, director of community and economic development for the City of Davenport, said he was “generally” pleased with Vandewalle & Associates’ work on preparing the Vision Iowa application for Davenport, Bettendorf, and Scott County. “We all would be happier if we were further along,” he said. He added that the three governments are at least partially responsible for delays, as is the state, which was slow to finalize application criteria. (Applications could be accepted for the $180 million program as soon as December 20, Lloyd said. The city hopes to submit its application in late January.)

Part of the difficulty in assessing the effectiveness of Vandewalle & Associates is that there are few benchmarks by which to measure the work. The consultant claims that Moline is just now reaching a state of “economic critical mass” and said that efforts in downtown Davenport should draw an additional million and a half people, but generally there have been few standards by which to evaluate the success of projects.

DARI’s Carmody said that communities nationwide often put too much stock in consultants. “I think it’s a problem across the landscape,” he said. “No plan is good unless it’s implemented.” And implementation is often hard. “Consultants and strategies are the easy part,” he said. “The community can’t delegate all the vision – the ‘what I want to be when I grow up’ – to someone from the outside.”

That sentiment is echoed by Dan Huber, executive director of DavenportOne.

“We are doing this [redevelopment] on our own,” Huber said. Vandewalle & Associates is “a help-me. We’re just buying planning services, economic positioning, [and] quality control.”

“I think it’s critical that if we bring somebody in [from outside the market] that they should have a reason for being here,” Gere said. Hiring outside consultants “is an unnecessary layer on most projects.”

A Matter of Money

Current or recent Vandewalle contracts include pacts with DavenportOne, the City of Davenport, Renew Moline, REDEEM, and the Quad City International Airport.

Paris wouldn’t discuss how much Vandewalle & Associates has been paid under its ongoing contract with REDEEM. And Vandewalle’s retainer contracts with DavenportOne and Renew Moline are not for a set amount.

But other current or recent contracts total at least $170,000: two $35,000 contracts with Renew Moline, a $40,000 contract with the Metropolitan Airport Authority (split between Vandewalle & Associates and Gere Dismer Architects), a $27,000 contract with DavenportOne, and a contract with the City of Davenport with authorized spending of $33,000. (That authorization will likely be increased at a Davenport City Council meeting on December 20.)

“It hasn’t come without considerable cost, but that’s the nature of the business,” said REDEEM’s Paris.

Vandewalle said his firm is worth the money. “DavenportOne can have access to this interdisciplinary thinking,” he said. “We can serve the roles of three, four, or five people that you’d have to hire. You’re hiring an expertise that’s broad.”

Huber said that Vandewalle & Associates is “an extension of our staff and organization. It makes economic sense. … To build those kinds of skill sets into our organization would be very expensive if we weren’t doing it on an outsourcing, retainer sort of way.”

“I don’t think we have that kind of expertise here in the Quad Cities,” Margenthaler said. “We don’t have people who design cities.”

Huber had two additional responses when asked about DavenportOne’s cost of using Vandewalle & Associates. “The funding streams are coming from a private, nonprofit” organization, he said, and Vandewalle’s fees are “a small percentage of the [cost of] overall redevelopment.”

The first response, that this is not public money and – by implication – not the concern of anybody outside of DavenportOne, ignores that a significant portion of the organization’s revenues come from businesses as part of the city-created Self-Supporting Municipal Improvement District (SSMID) to redevelop downtown. More importantly, many of the components of the Davenport renewal plan are seeking funding from city or state government. And at the very least these are matters of great public interest.

Vandewalle said that Illinois and Iowa generally don’t receive their proportionate share of federal economic-development funds. Projects he helps with, he said, are intended to attract more state and federal money. “You design activities to get [government] funding,” he said.

That philosophy is one justification for the money the Quad Cities are spending on Vandewalle’s services. If projects get state, federal, and/or private funding because of his work, it more than offsets the consultant’s fees. “A lot of this is money that wouldn’t get to these communities,” he said.

Vandewalle & Associates’ interdisciplinary approach to the business of development goes a long way toward ensuring long-term contracts and relationships. “This go-round should be done in three years,” Vandewalle said of Davenport’s redevelopment efforts.

“The relationship will continue as long as it’s productive,” Huber said.

Anderson of Renew Moline said that Vandewalle will probably continue to work with his city. “As long as there are things to accomplish, there is a role here,” he said.

Jeff Ignatius can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
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