A case for city-scale recycling

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Dan Cort coined a new word to describe what he does: “contra-development.” It’s done by buying decrepit historic buildings in flagging downtowns and renovating them into functional spaces that restore life to city neighborhoods.


Cort’s self-published book, Downtown Turnaround: Lessons for a New Urban Landscape, takes a rather utopian view of contra-development as the antidote to urban sprawl. His book is something of an urban planning manifesto – equal parts memoir, agitprop and how-to manual – targeting open-minded and aspiring architects, civil engineers and developers, and anyone else who will listen.


Cort is clearly spirited about his work, and his book spells out just how brilliant he is at it. By restoring blighted properties in Stockton, San Francisco and the Monterey Peninsula, he takes recycling to a building-sized scale, draws shoppers away from far-flung big-boxes and closer to home, and makes a plush living from it.


The book spells out how he leverages creative financing, stubbornness and charisma to make it work. “I needed to memorialize how tough, but how doable it is,” Cort says.


He’s got a unique perspective on the subject, as both a developer and a politician. He moved to P.G. in part because it boasts the most Victorians – his favorite architectural style – per capita in the U.S. After serving for five years on the P.G. Planning Commission, he landed five more as mayor. But in August 2009, with a year left in his last term, Cort abruptly resigned the post, hopped on a sailboat to join an anti-plastics campaign, and in fall 2010 debuted Downtown Turnaround.


Cort’s a good storyteller, and his writing is at its best when he articulates his experiences with humor and candor. His success stories are inspirational, like Stockton’s Railroad Square, which he transformed from a crime-riddled squat to a profitable social services center. But his style also leans toward the self-referential, and the narrative radiates a sunniness that at times feels a bit artificial. For example, his mention of the Sand City building he converted from a plastics factory to a hip eco-restaurant doesn’t include the financial tangles that ultimately shuttered Ol’Factory Cafe.


More glaringly, he avoids reference to the political theater that led to his resignation as P.G. mayor – a story that could have illustrated how unanticipated buffoonery can subvert even the best of intentions. By stepping down, Cort gave up the leverage he had to see through his own visions for turning around downtown P.G., like a pedestrian-only segment of downtown, solar panels on school roofs, and the conversion of a corporate yard into a reservoir.


“Being an elected official is not a sentence,” Cort responds. “You serve.”


He ticks off some of his proudest accomplishments as mayor: a money-saving staff reorganization, a public-private partnership for the P.G. museum, the launch of the downtown farmers market, relaxed permitting rules for homeowners. 


“We did what we could do in a small town,” he says.


For more on the book, visit dancort.com or www.facebook.com/DowntownTurnaround.

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