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David Leland

'Gravity is always at work, whether it's apples or arguments'

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David Leland is the very definition of a "city man," yet his home away from home is in one of the most intimate, idyllic hideaways on earth--San Miguel de Allende, tucked into the Central Highlands of Mexico. But he doesn't spend nearly enough time there.

"I'm supposed to be retired, but don't tell my wife," Leland, 74, told Boise Weekly.

Speaking to BW from Mexico, Leland was on his way to another of dozens of weekly meetings where he was helping yet another city showcase its own vitality. Through his career, Leland has consulted, advised or developed more than 3,000 urban projects and is considered one of the most successful public-private strategists in the nation. Which is why the Downtown Boise Association is partnering with the Capital City Development Corporation and the city of Boise is playing host to Leland Tuesday, April 15, when he'll be the keynote speaker at DBA's State of Downtown Boise event.

Prior to his latest visit (he has visited Boise many times), BW spoke to Leland about cities in general and Boise in particular.

Are you at a point in your life where you don't do anything you don't want to do?

I think that's a fair way to describe it. I live in San Miguel de Allende with my wife. In December, Conde Nast Traveler magazine, its subscribers, voted San Miguel as the best city in the world.

And can you confirm that San Miguel is indeed the greatest city in the world?

It's a combination of things--a 500-year-old city with colonial charm, narrow cobblestone streets, tiny homes and gorgeous mansions, all lining the streets with gorgeous walls that come right up to the curb. The culture is very rich. We've had a home here for 10 years. When I sold my business in Portland [Ore.] last fall, we moved down here full time.

But you still work with Leland Consulting Group.

You bet. I remain counsel to the firm and I'm working on a number of assignments. We've done work with [Boise developer] Bill Clark and we're also working on the downtown circulator study for the city of Boise.

When you talk to people about the few cities in the nation that are doing a lot of things right, which cities do you point to?

Portland [Ore.] is certainly one of them. Denver has done very well. Actually, I like Oklahoma City and one of my favorite cities is Boise.

But, in your estimation, what does Boise need that it doesn't have?

[Long pause] Growth isn't possible without jobs. It's only through jobs that we build more housing and increase our tax base.

Let's talk about living in downtown Boise's core. How important is that?

It's essential. It drives retail, keeps your restaurants alive and brings safety and security to the streets. Actually I think the market opportunity in Boise is quite strong. I think Boise has a supply problem rather than a demand problem. Fortunately, downtown Boise has very attractive elements: shopping, employment, the river, the university and a number of cultural venues. I think part of the challenge right now is for developers to figure out how to pay for new housing. Suffice to say, there's always danger in backing into the future based on what happened yesterday. Fundamentally, that's a mistake.

But what's the secret of getting the right kind of investment in order to create a special space in a downtown core?

Take Boise's BODO neighborhood, for example. That area was originally a soft space, but that concentration of capital profoundly changed the nature of downtown Boise.

Do you see light rail transit in Boise's future?

Since my firm is working on that, I'm a little cautious to comment. But, by and large, circulator systems do work. They relieve traffic congestion and take pressure off of parking garages.

Your resume says you've worked on more than 3,000 projects. How many assignments would you be tackling simultaneously?

Maybe 30 at any given time. Remember, I've been doing this for 52 years. Some got built and some didn't. Part of responsible consulting is telling a city when not to build something. Part of our job is to always be guardians of the overall vision. Never lose sight of the big picture. Gravity is always at work, whether it be apples or arguments.

Where does reality begin and theory end?

You have to work from the bottom up. It can't all be theory. It's a combination of maintaining a consistent awareness of the strategy while always looking at the ground level of how to get financing and put a building together. I always find this intellectually fascinating because no two projects should ever be the same. I think I've turned attention deficit disorder into a career.

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