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March 2004
Attaining Excellence in Design, LandDesign's Vision is Transforming
By Ellison Clary

     Brad Davis works on design and planning projects the same way he helped build his business: From scratch, with an eye for excellence.

     The president and co-founder of Charlotte’s LandDesign, Inc. started what is now a multi-million-dollar design and planning business with a college buddy in January 1979. In its silver anniversary year, LandDesign counts 140 associates in six cities, including Beijing, China.

     Fifty of them, including Davis, occupy two-thirds of a 32,000-square-foot building that dates to the early 20th century. It’s at the corner of North Graham and West Sixth streets, in the shadow of Charlotte’s skyline. LandDesign moved into the structure that once housed a Coca-Cola bottler’s offices in 2000.

     But before vacating long-time quarters in four houses near Freedom Park, Davis and his associates had to figure how to save two walls of the dilapidated two-story structure, widen its footprint and add two floors. Along the way, they restored a giant painting of a full Coke bottle on the wall facing Sixth Street.

     “We grew up on East Boulevard,” Davis says of the location that ultimately caused clients to sprint back and forth across the busy artery. The situation made Davis nervous enough to seek center city space.

     “We always felt like downtown was ultimately where we wanted to be,” he says as he takes in the tall buildings framed by the expansive window inhis fourth floor conference room. LandDesign is part of what is called the Cotton Mills development by Peter Pappas of Pappas Properties that includes the renovated historic Speizman warehouse and the newly constructed Charlotte Cotton Mills apartments.

     The digs weren’t always so plush for LandDesign. Davis and North Carolina State University classmate Larry Best didn’t have much more than a love for design when they opened shop in the old Morrison family farmhouse in SouthPark. But they did know they’d found their niche in urban design, landscape architecture, land planning and civil engineering.

     “Larry and I said a long time ago,” Davis grins, “that if anybody would pay you to draw, what a wonderful  thing that is.”

     The ink was barely dry on the N.C. State master’s degrees Davis and Best had earned, but they started sketching for clients who wanted something more than a standard plan that would win them a building permit.

     The firm’s four specialties “all deal with planning and development of the land,” Davis says. He explains them this way:

     Urban design creates livable space for high density populations while landscape architecture finds land uses that harmonize development with the environment. Land planning plots how larger acreages should develop over time. Civil engineering designs infrastructure such as streets and water systems to best support intended land use.

     Partner Dale Stewart brought civil engineering to the company when he joined in 1987, giving the firm true full-service design capabilities.

     “Fundamentally, it comes back to excellence in design,” Davis says. “This is the reason for our success. Our clients recognize that this is what our focus is. I believe in their minds we add the value of really good design. We help create a more memorable place as well as a financially successful venture.”

 

Starting From Scratch

     Starting from scratch, LandDesign generated the master plan for developments such as Phillips Place near their first office in SouthPark, and Birkdale Village in Northern Mecklenburg County. Both are mixed-use, commercial residential projects lauded for their adherence to an overall master plan. 

     Working with the Harris Group, LandDesign put together a fundamental layout for Phillips Place, then designed its infrastructure and streetscape. Completed in 1996, Phillips Place is recognized as one of the first Carolinas examples of using urban design principles to fashion a new suburban mixed-use project.

     The national recognition of Phillips Place brought Davis and his associates other opportunities, including Birkdale, which encompassed about 700 acres. Again starting with nothing more than rolling Piedmont fields, they worked with Pappas Properties and the Crosland Group to fashion a master plan for the retail-office-residential project completed in 1998.

     A new challenge for LandDesign is its work with the city of Charlotte to master plan areas within a half-mile of seven transit stations contemplated along the light rail line between center city and Pineville. Starting at the New Bern Street station and working south, LandDesign will devise infrastructure with a dual purpose, Davis says. Bike lanes, sidewalks, water lines and the like must make the stations themselves attractive and simultaneously create redevelopment opportunities for residential, commercial and office uses.

     A regional project brought Davis and his associates face-to-face with legendary tycoon Rupert Murdock in the mid-1980s. Murdock contracted with LandDesign to create a verdant, pedestrian-friendly main street in Kannapolis near what was known as Cannon Mills, a textile giant the international business wizard had bought.

     Bob Haldeman of Watergate infamy was a top Murdock lieutenant, Davis recalls, but it was the tyrannical demeanor of Murdock himself that made a lasting impression. Davis experienced it as he worked on the part of LandDesign’s contract that included planning and overseeing construction of a 7,000-square-foot Murdock mansion on nearby Lake Kannapolis.

     “(Murdock) had crews working 24 hours, including nights under big lights,” Davis remembers. “He was as tough as they come. We were running as fast as we could to keep up with his demands, which were just extraordinary.” 

     In an apparent effort to motivate them, Murdock boasted to Davis and associates, “I’m going to put you boys on the map.”

     “I was shocked by his manner,” says the soft-spoken Davis. “Most of our clients are a good deal more genteel.” 

 

Continuing A Dual Search

     Today, LandDesign continues its dual search for projects in both center city Charlotte and surrounding counties. And it continues to strike a balance between public and private projects.

     Davis is proud of the firm’s plan for Mecklenburg County on a 15-mile Little Sugar Creek Greenway. The company is beginning work on a section near Kings Drive. He believes LandDesign’s vision will transform that area of midtown with retail and higher density residential and create a promenade that’s “almost Parisian.”

     Still, he and his associates pay regular visits to officials in Union and Gaston counties, pursuing regional projects, again both public and private.

     The firm’s designers and planners wouldn’t have it any other way, Davis believes. “The types of folks we attract are trained in such a way that their interests and skills have a lot of breadth. I don’t think our folks would be satisfied if we focused on one or the other (urban or suburban, public or private),” he says.

     Davis points to the quality of LandDesign hires as a big reason for its financial success that includes never suffering a money-losing year and growing to $15 million in annual revenue. Along the way, it added offices in Washington, Tampa and Nashville as well as Asheville and Pinehurst in North Carolina. With 50 employees, Charlotte is still home to LandDesign’s largest presence.

     “We look for a special personality type,” Davis says of the company’s efforts to recruit recent architecture graduates. “We try to attract the very best professional. We go nationwide and have a number of programs to help us get our exposure and make graduates aware of who we are and what we do.”

     Indeed, the Beijing office is run by a former LandDesign intern who decided to return to his native country, then got permission to start an Asian outpost. His operation is the reason Davis’ Charlotte conference room displays a plan for an urban, lakefront development in Wuxi, Jiang Su, China.     

     College chum Best retired in 2002, but often works in the Pinehurst office. Davis says the firm has continued to bring associates into partnership positions. Today there are 12 partners, including Davis, 55.

     Besides professional success, Davis found domestic bliss in Charlotte. He is married to Queen City native Margaret Pierce, whom he calls “probably the most independent-minded person I’ve ever met,” is in its 20th year. Their 15-year-old son Peter attends Myers Park High School.

     A geographer, Pierce travels the world working on refugee resettlement and health services for minority populations. Davis and his son sometimes take skiing trips.

     A favorite destination for the whole family is their just-finished mountain retreat near Burnsville, N.C. “It’s a half-mile to the nearest neighbor in beautiful country,” says Davis of the 2,500-square-foot getaway he designed. “It’s surrounded on three sides by Pisgah Forest and four miles from Mount Mitchell as the crow flies.”

 

The Spark Is Still There

     But it’s only a retreat. Davis is having too much fun to retire. “I always wanted to be a planner,” he says.

     “I grew up in Arlington (Va.) and I’d ride the bus to visit my grandmother who lived in the District (of Columbia),” he recalls. “She’d put a pad in front of me and I’d start drawing.”

     Mentally, he’s drawing a five-year plan for LandDesign. He wants to build the design breadth of the Charlotte office in the firm’s other locations. While the company continues to explore opportunities in China, it just might open an office in a larger U.S. city.

     Davis realizes Charlotte will continue growing, as well. His vision for Charlotte goes like this: “I think the center city (in 10 years) has filled out to the extent that Second Ward and Third Ward are well on the way to infill and development. We’ve got the arts and entertainment district. We’ve got the (Triple A) baseball stadium. The light rail and other transit facilities are well along the path for implementation.”

     He also predicts a more vibrant region. With completion of Charlotte’s outer belt, he sees burgeoning development along it and in municipalities within a 20-to-30- mile radius. He’d like LandDesign to be pivotal in a regional urban space plan that would win allegiance of the counties surrounding Mecklenburg.

     Davis acknowledges there’s more competition in LandDesign’s planning functions these days than 15 years ago. Then citing Charlotte’s rapid growth, he quickly adds, “The opportunities are greater, as well.”

            And LandDesign itself is “a little more complicated,” he concedes. “But it still is an invigorating and exciting place to be. After 25 years, I still look forward to coming in to work.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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