Dennis Reynolds designs the elements around a building you can see and touch: the streets, the landscaping, the pedestrian pathways.
As an urban designer, Reynolds said his job - part architect, part city planner - is to make buildings, streets and green spaces work together.
His work can be found in Des Moines' suburbs and the heart of downtown, and from the Middle East to China.
Reynolds' term as chairman of Des Moines' Urban Design Review Board expires this month. The board is charged with reviewing the architectural design and financing of developments that receive incentives from the city.
Reynolds moved to Des Moines in 2005 to work for the development company LADCO designing Village of Ponderosa. The ambitious 97-acre development near West Glen in West Des Moines aimed to combine homes, businesses and parks in a dense, walkable community.
After the economic crash, a bank foreclosed on more than half of Ponderosa, and the owners of LADCO declared bankruptcy. Ponderosa was bought earlier this year by a Houston-based firm called LENL LLC.
Reynolds went on to start his own consulting firm, Reynolds Urban Design. He has since been involved in the design of downtown's proposed Walnut Street renovation and City Square, the $50 million hotel, apartment and parking garage development in the East Village.
Earlier in his career, Reynolds helped design the campus for a race car track in Dubai and an Olympic sports park in Nanjing, China.
These days, Reynolds sketches most of his designs in a garage-like studio he built behind his house in Des Moines' Westwood neighborhood. That's where Reynolds and I, joined by his dog, Cotton, talked earlier this week.
Q: How do you describe your style of design?
A: It's eclectic, though I really love the modernist approach that says form is driven by function. It's a very honest design approach.
Q: What do you think will come of Village of Ponderosa?
A: You know, it's sitting there with a incredibly strategic location. It's one of the few opportunities in the metro area to have a truly walkable community that has a mixture of shopping, entertainment and park systems. It has a tremendous framework in terms of the infrastructure and street systems, so I have high hopes for the future. I'm sure something will happen now that the land is in the hand of developers. They're working on ideas. I'm doing some sketches for them on their buildings.
Q: Do you think it will be developed close to the original plan?
A: Because the greenbelt system is in place - the lakes and the wetlands - and the street system is in place and it's laid out very well, with a very walkable strategy, I think those types of characteristics will continue to drive it no matter what they put in the vacant land.
Q: Walkable, mixed-use communities in the suburbs like Ponderosa and Prairie Trail in Ankeny have developed slower than expected. Some of that is due to the recession, but do you think those type of dense communities are still viable in the suburbs where people are used to more space?
A: I do. In fact, when you look at those walkable communities, they consistently out-perform more traditional land planning communities in terms of return on a return investment, the rental rates and home prices. The cost to provide services like police and fire is much lower, and the residents are healthier because they walk more. The big challenge is getting them established and building the critical mass so they function the way they're designed to. Unfortunately, Prairie Trail and Village at Ponderosa came about at absolutely the worst time. They were just getting started, and then the recession hit, but the resiliency is showing now as they're starting to come back.
Q: I think a lot of downtown residents are torn between staying for the walkability and moving away to have more space for kids or pets. Finding places that offer both seems difficult.
A: That is the big challenge in Des Moines. If you are living in the East Village or around Court Avenue and you want to continue to live like that and own a home, it's hard to do that. We don't have many options for that, like townhomes or single-family homes. I think we'll start to see new construction respond to that same need in areas outside of downtown.
Q: You helped design the city's plan to overhaul Walnut Street, a plan aimed at creating a pedestrian-friendly retail corridor. Can a streetscape face-lift really attract national retailers like the city hopes?
A: We had a consultant - Robert Gibbs - come in. His numbers really indicate a tremendous need for a retail corridor in downtown Des Moines. What Walnut Street has is some really large street-level floor plates that retailers want, and it has a history of retail and entertainment and now people living there. All those things are starting to come together, so the face-lift is probably the least important of those factors, though it is still important.
Q: What is something around the city that you, as an urban designer, find exciting?
A: Sooner or later something exciting is going to happen with the old Riverfront YMCA site. It's such a highly visible and important knuckle. It's almost touching the Civic Center and within a block or two of Court Avenue, the East Village and the Iowa Events Center. It can really be a connector, an anchor point where all those things come together. I don't think we should underestimate what it can be, because there isn't going to be another site like that in the city.
Job: Owner of Reynolds Urban Design.
Hometown: Kansas City, Mo.
Education: Bachelor's degree in economics from Wheaton College, master's in landscape architecture from Kansas State University.