Downtowns are more than buildings to new DDA director
Kristopher Larson has been the executive director of the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority since August, when he took over the post from Jay Fowler.
Larson said he already feels more like an old hand than a newbie.
“I feel like I’ve been here for years already, and that’s because the community has been so incredibly welcoming. Not a day goes by where I don’t meet somebody new who is genuinely happy to get to know me and to extend an offer to help in any way they can. That’s one of the more remarkable qualities of this town,” he said. “It already feels like home.”
Larson came here after living in North Carolina and California, where the winter skies aren’t quite as gray and the temps don’t drop quite as far. “I’m not quite sure what to be ready for, yet,” he said, chuckling. “I’ve been told it snows and it will be cold so I’ll probably need a bigger winter jacket.”
Larson said what interested him in Grand Rapids was the unifying impact the philanthropic leaders have had on the area over the past few decades.
“I think it’s helped eliminate some of the political pitfalls that accompany downtown revitalization,” he said of avoiding an us-versus-them conflict between the city and its suburbs. “Secondly, it’s the notion of the river and the opportunity that the river presents to really help transform our community.”
Before Larson came to Grand Rapids, he was vice president of Downtown Long Beach Associates for more than three years. Prior to that, he was a senior planner for nearly two years at the Raleigh Urban Design Center. He also served at the Downtown Raleigh Alliance for three years, rising to become its deputy director at age 27.
“I’d say the biggest break I’ve had in my career was having the pleasure to work for some tremendous leaders — thought leaders and great managers who have positioned me, at a fairly young age, to be equipped to have a position like this,” he said.
Larson was referring to Mitchell Silver and Nancy Hormann, whom he worked with and learned from while in Raleigh. Silver directed the Raleigh Design Center at the time; he now is president of the American Planning Association. He also directed planning in New York City. “He kind of groomed me. He was a great tutor and a great mentor,” said Larson.
Hormann was the executive director of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance while Larson was there. “She had 30 years of experience in managing downtowns across the country. She really helped me to develop a sense of the role of business in helping to mobilize a community around a sense of purpose and goals and to be able to utilize volunteer time and leadership to help a community advance,” he said. “I had great exposure in working with great leaders.”
Larson attended North Carolina State University in his hometown of Raleigh, where he earned a master’s degree in public administration, specializing in urban management, planning and economic development, after earning a bachelor’s degree in applied sociology.
However, his interest in urban planning and downtown development emerged long before he went to college. His parents enrolled him in a highly rated magnet school located in a distressed portion of Raleigh, even though they lived in a more suburban section of the city.
“I can recall being able to reflect upon the difference between the suburban lifestyle I had at home versus the urban experience I had at school. And there was a stark dichotomy there in terms of the way I felt as a human being in those two places,” he said.
As a youngster, Larson learned the automobile defined where he lived, while at school he had a different experience.
“In a suburban area, you generally need your parents to drive you everywhere, other than just going to the neighbor’s house. Whereas when I was downtown, I felt I was more free because I could walk around and go to the comic-book shop or to Krispy Kreme to get a hot doughnut. Those were just the little things that enabled me to feel a little bit more like a grownup,” he said.
“I didn’t have the language for it yet, but I would ask myself why the two were so different. And I wanted to be able to have the opportunity to have an urban experience as a kid outside of just when I went to school. So I began this interest in cities because, to me, cities felt more unique than the suburban area that I like to call ‘Generica’ because every suburb and almost every town felt almost exactly the same.”
Larson belongs to the American Planning Association and the American Institute of Certified Planners. He also serves on the International Downtown Association’s board of directors. He hasn’t been here long enough to join any local groups, but he plans to, especially in one area that holds a lot of personal and professional interest for him.
“In my previous two communities, I served on the boards of their local city museums, but more in regards to a historical city museum. Now, I’m not sure if Grand Rapids has something like that but in Raleigh, it was the Raleigh City Museum. In Long Beach, it was called the Historical Society,” he said.
“I’ve always utilized opportunities like that to get a firmer understanding of the history of a community because my job is to think about the future of a community and I’ve always loved those opportunities to help to inform planning with an understanding of a community’s past. So I’ll probably be looking for an opportunity like that because it’s always been a great augmentation to my professional capacities.”
In his free time, Larson enjoys running and watching movies. But his free time is limited and often by choice.
“Addict might be too strong a word, but I love what I do and it’s almost hard for me to turn off thinking about what I do. So if I’m not in the office you can probably find me at a pub talking with colleagues about work and what I do. I dream about what I do. It’s one of those things that I don’t get a lot of time to turn it off because I love it so much,” he said.
Larson told the Business Journal that building a downtown isn’t about building buildings; rather, it’s about building the sector around people. To build a downtown around people, he said he and the board need to understand how people relate to buildings, so for the next year, Larson plans to put that philosophy into play.
“I really want the DDA to exercise leadership by becoming a convener of people and engaging the resource that is the love of community, the ideas that are out there in the community at large and helping to transform those into building a great city. So my biggest ambition is to be able to find a way to harness all of that energy, all of that sincerity about growing this community, in such a way that people have meaningful ways to contribute into downtown’s growth,” he said.
“If you have something to give, I want the DDA to create that place for you to know where to put it. I see us as an organization that is going to be growing through the engagement of the community at large. I believe that, really, all of the ideas and passion that are out there is a far more valuable amount of currency than our annual operating budget. So that’s going to be the real great tool that we’re going to have to continue to grow downtown.”