The Art of Building Cities

Richard McLeod version 3 final

A Man of Vision – pastel on board, 20” x 16”

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Artist and Dancer Richard McLeod Brings a Creative Touch To Community Development

Richard McLeod is the former Director of Community Development for the City of Woodstock. When McLeod began working for the city, Woodstock was a sleepy town with two or three blocks of aging retail stores along a state highway. During his tenure from 2002-2012, McLeod helped usher in the 26- acre development now known as “Woodstock Downtown,” a compact development of commercial retail space and restaurants, crowned by four stories of condo units over retail shops and backstopped with multiple “pocket parks” and tall urban-style homes.

This story is the first in a series featuring local leaders and visionaries, some behind the scenes, who have had an impact on the community.

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“I sometimes had to picture the Mayor and Council in their underwear.”

The eyebrow-raising statement comes from Richard McLeod as he compares the position of Community Development Director to his first career in his twenties, when he was, surprisingly, a professional dancer with the San Francisco Ballet. He says some elements from his career as a performer carried over into his job with the City in unexpected ways. He grins and explains.

“When you’re in Community Development, sometimes you’re going to do things that are unpopular. I was working with private developers to help get their projects done. So part of my job was being able to stand in front of a room full of people who were angry at me and not be afraid to keep communicating…Back when I was a dancer, one of the things they used to tell us was to picture the audience in their underwear, so we’d be less nervous.”

“Well, when I came to Woodstock, that just meant sometimes I had to picture Mayor Henriques or Bill Dewrell in their underwear when situations got tense.”

I ask McLeod to name the job description for “Director of Community Development.” He gestures toward the modern skyline of Downtown Woodstock behind him. White triangles of canvas shade the second-story patio at “PURE.” Private balconies hang from the brown brick face of the five story building. Shops line the street level, with its wide, tree-shaded sidewalks.

 “I didn’t build anything, I didn’t engineer, I didn’t make any laws. My job was just to make sure all the right people stayed in the room. The developer had a spectacular vision, but it didn’t go with what was being done in Cherokee County at the time. Everybody else was building subdivisions with cul-de-sacs, and multi-car garages.”

“This project needed a champion, and I guess I was that champion.”

The developer wanted one thing, the elected officials wanted another, Public Works wanted something else. It was my job to bring the artistic and regulatory sides together in a way that would allow a great creative project to happen. Part of my job description would have to include the word ‘artist.’ The dominant side to it has to be creative. So it’s recognizing the difference between a really good development and one that’s not so good.”

“Building good cities is a lost art.”

“Technically, some of what we did here went against the code. And it went against ‘Industry Standards.’ For example, we made the streets more narrow to slow down the cars. We took little things like the street drains, and used a type that didn’t give the appearance of being able to swallow small children. Some of what makes me different is that I am willing to dig into those kinds of items, that are normally handled on the Public Works side.”

“A great city is made of a million tiny details – where does the sun come from during certain times of the day? What is the color of the streetlights shining into the retail shops? I’ve been known to visit Savannah and walk around with a tape measure, measuring alleys and garages and houses and buildings. I’m always trying to figure out, What is the DNA that makes a city so distinctive?”

 

I ask McLeod if there are other connections between his career as a dancer and what he does now. He nods.

“When I was a dancer, we used to travel all over Europe, where the cities are hundreds, even thousands, of years old. Their cities are old and beautiful, and they still work. Over here, we’re lucky if our houses outlast our roofs. I would come back to Atlanta even then and think, Why can’t we build cities like that?”

 

It’s an art that Richard McLeod is apparently dedicated to reviving.

 

 

Comments

  1. Patti Brady says:

    Ann, I’ve enjoyed reading this series of articles on area contributors so much. Your insight and your ability to coax out the inner person don’t surprise me–you have an observer’s thoughtful heart and the perceptive skills of an artist. Keep telling us more. Inspire us to treasure this locale always.

    • Ann Litrel says:

      Patti,
      thank you so much! I’ll be posting the story of Juanita Hughes soon, which mentions your theater collaboration with her and Gay on “Driving Mizz Edna.”

      What a great way to honor a community – by making its history into a work of art.

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