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The Careful Planner

Richmond's new planning director is no Rachel Flynn.

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Mark Olinger became the city’s director of planning and development review in September. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Mark Olinger became the city’s director of planning and development review in September.

He likes hipsters. He hates reflective glass. He thinks the master plan isn't holy gospel.

Six months ago Mark A. Olinger became the city's new director of planning and development review, the person who's responsible for shaping the way Richmond will look five, 10 or 50 years from now.

It's a role made famous by Olinger's outspoken predecessor, Rachel Flynn, who clashed spectacularly with City Council.

That's not Olinger's style, he'll be the first to tell you. Planning departments should be advisers to council, he says: "I think our role is to help make recommendations and create a policy that helps decision makers, then policymakers, make good decisions."

Unlike Flynn, Olinger (pronounced with a hard G) is process-oriented. He touts, for example, a new land-management system that will let city residents apply for permits and track their progress online to "help unjam the queue." Like Flynn, Olinger believes in walkable communities, urban revitalization and good design. "A city that has a sense of itself, that it gets expressed in design, is a city where people will want to be," he says.

The real question is: Can he finish what Flynn started?

Five years ago Flynn invited residents to hash out their visions for a downtown master plan. The result was walkable, river-centered and green, winning Flynn people's love and the ire of developers whose plans were stymied.

It was a crucial turning point for Richmond, says John Sarvay, a Flynn fan and owner of Floricane, a strategic planning and creative development company. Making the James River the city's centerpiece "was one of the most important things that the downtown plan did," he says.

It led to the ambitious urban design projects now on the horizon — most notably the new plan to reinvent the riverfront and make it more accessible. The city's also eyeing changes to Shockoe Bottom: redoing the 17th Street Farmers' Market, adding a promenade, making streets two-way and redeveloping the Main Street Station train shed, which once housed retail shops.

While all these things are happening, at least on paper, "the city still needs visionary leadership," Sarvay says. And if Olinger intends to remain in an advisory role, who's going to step up? "I don't think it matters to me, as a resident, where the leadership and the vision come from," Sarvay says. "But it has to come from somewhere."

Olinger is enthusiastic about the riverfront plan. "I think it's a game changer," he says. While for the last 100 years the city has thrown up obstacles to river access — highways, sewers, railroad tracks — the new plan, he says, centers on "helping people get to the water and dip their toe in the water." Planners are editing the riverfront plan before presenting it to City Council, and Olinger's hoping it will be approved by Memorial Day.

The planner says he believes the river's renewal will help the areas around it to grow. Manchester will be "a radically different neighborhood in the next five to 10 years," he says, and Shockoe Bottom will continue to mature. He's also looking at Richmond's old federal highway corridors — Midlothian Turnpike, Hull Street, Chamberlayne Avenue, Jefferson Davis Turnpike — and empty shopping centers as opportunities "to keep the city vital and dynamic."

Olinger began his career in 1982 as an urban-living coordinator in Dayton, Ohio, where he ran a program that helped people buy foreclosed homes. That experience shaped his approach as a planner. "Individual decisions create great cities," he says. "It's people deciding to stay or go, invest or not, visit or not."

Olinger began working for Madison, Wis., in 1997 and soon became director of planning and community and economic development. He was known as a competent planner and an advocate of walkable neighborhoods and new urbanism. In 2010 his contract wasn't renewed, but the reasons why were never stated publicly. The 56-year-old became Richmond's planning director in September. He lives with his wife and their dog in Tobacco Row.

The next five years will be the test, Sarvay says. Will the city engage in "energetic pursuit" of its urban vision? "Or is it going to be a meandering, 30-year pub crawl?" he asks.

Olinger takes a long view: "I would love to have people come back to Richmond 150 years from now, and say, 'You know, they did a pretty good job of it in the early part of the 21st century.'" S

Q&A with Mark Olinger

An edited transcript of an interview with the city’s new director planning and development review.

Style: Had you been to Richmond before?

Olinger: I’ve traveled through it a couple times in the past. I will say it was amazing -- my first day here … I came in from the airport along Williamsburg, not from the interstate. And I can remember making the bend at Main Street there at Poe’s Pub, and all of a sudden the city opening up before me. And I said, 'You know, this isn’t what I recall of Richmond.' And it was a totally different experience. I mean, it’s got a real urban core, and there’s more topography here than I remembered, and all of those things that I think make for fascinating cities.

What’s going on with the riverfront plan?

I think it’s a game changer. I love what the mayor said about helping people get to the water and dip their toe in the water. Because what we’ve done in the last hundred years in the city of Richmond … has been we’ve thrown all the infrastructure we can imagine up against the river and then try to figure out why people don’t use it. We’ve got highways, we’ve got big sewers, we’ve got depressed highways, we’ve got elevated highways, got railroad tracks, we’ve got floodwalls. Everything that is a huge impediment to using our resource has been put down by our resource.

So when you think about the plan … it’s kind of big concept, it’s talking about urban wild, it’s two and a half miles and there’s a lot of really great ideas. At the end of the day, I think the riverfront system works because we can show people how to use that and create a great community asset. So that ultimately they can get down to the river, and dip their toe in, and enjoy it in a way that is generally not possible now. … The riverfront is not just an experience. It’s many experiences.

Besides the river, what areas of the city are you really focusing on, or do you think will change the most in the next five or 10 years?

Not wanting to focus on the river, but you think about the areas in close proximity. I think Manchester has a huge potential to be a radically different neighborhood in the next five to 10 years. I think the Bottom will continue to mature. I think our efforts and our planning and our thinking in the Eastview and East End neighborhoods will bear fruit, long term. … The other one that I find fascinating, just from how I see the city evolving, is the whole Boulevard, stadium, Scotts Addition neighborhood.

You’ve got all these old federal highways: Midlothian, Chamberlayne, Brook, Broad, Hull, Jeff Davis, am I missing one? Williamsburg, to a certain extent. … So we’ve got these long corridors that I think we need to repurpose. We’ve got big shopping centers -- think of Cloverleaf Mall. We’ve got other places in the city and the region where all of a sudden, you know, the world is a different place than it was four years ago. Do we get back to that, ever? I don’t know the answer to that right now. But we’ve got lots of square footage of retail and commercial areas that could be ripe for something else. We need to think about that because, again, as a landlocked city, in an opportunity to keep the city vital and dynamic, there are parts of this city that we will need to think about how we reinvent ourselves.

Your predecessor, Rachel Flynn, was well known for being very outspoken, often critical of city policies. Is that your style?

No. My style is, I often think that the role … of planning departments is that we’re advisers to [city] council. So I think we create plans, council adopts plans, and then projects come through either in conformance or not in conformance with those adopted plans. I think our role is to help make recommendations and create a policy that helps decision makers, then policymakers, make good decisions. So my goal has always been to work with those folks to make those things happen. … I have no comment on people who were prior to me; just like at Madison, I have no comment on the director who followed me. Everybody’s got their own unique style. I think I am committed. I try to think of myself as a problem-solver. I like to think of myself as having a bit of a sense of humor. I take what I do very seriously. I don’t take myself always that seriously. I’m also part-Irish … I’ll just leave it at that.

Are there any policies or plans in place now that you think need to change?

I think the biggest one is, the master plan was adopted in 2001. And we have to go back through every so often and reaffirm that this is, in fact, the city’s master plan. … So, I think a hard look at the city’s adopted master plan on a regular basis is a good thing. Because the world does change. And … I think plans are our best thinking at a point in time. Over time, things change. And I think one of the things we need to do is to stay relevant. So that not every project that comes forward is contrary -- you know, our master plan said this in 2001. Scott’s Addition is a perfect example. The area’s moving in a different direction. Let’s not keep saying the master plan says it needs to be manufacturing. Let’s spend some time thinking about what the opportunities are to create something different.

So I think it’s always good to check in on your processes occasionally. We’ve spent a lot of money and time getting a land management system to help permit processing and all of that. That will be up and running, I hope, in a year. I think that’s a game-changer, even though it sounds like insider baseball. It will be easier for people to check on permits, apply for permits, for us to inspect, for people to track. And it’s using technology to help make decisions, to help get information out. And that sounds boring. But if I’m a plumbing contractor, or I’m a homeowner, or I’m a business that wants to do something and I’m always getting jammed up in the queue, I think this will help unjam the queue.

I know my predecessor was a big fan of design. … I’m not a believer that design is the only approach to take. But I think good design trumps bad design every day of the week. I think in the long term, a city that has a sense of itself, that it gets expressed in design, is a city where people will want to be. … And I believe we need to be rigorous with how we think about design issues. And understand, however, that -- I’ve always believed -- if you get the five or six things right, you don’t have to nitpick item 32 on the drawing sheet. Because it’s the big ones that matter. All the other ones will tend to take care of themselves.

One of the challenges, if I could wave the magic wand in Richmond, would be we have way too many parking garages in downtown that take up too many block faces. Wouldn’t it have been nice to figure out how to do parking garages a little bit differently? I mean, they’re just absolute dead space. And you put a parking garage up, and it’s there for the next 50 years. … I would love to have people come back to Richmond 150 years from now, and say, ‘You know, they did a pretty good job of it in the early part of the 21st century.’

Is there a project done, in, say, the last 10-15 years that you really like?

know there are varying opinions on this, and full disclosure, Mead used to be in Dayton, my hometown. … I kinda like the MeadWestvaco building. It’s a modern, urban office building, and I kinda like it.

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