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December 2009
Urban Strategist
By Ellison Clary

     He’s a world traveler and art collector, but he’s also shaped Charlotte’s growth and its mass transit design. He’s an architect who’s stopped practicing in favor of planning and considers himself an urban strategist.

     Most recently, he helped develop a groundbreaking study of how the entire global network of human activity impacts every element of the natural system. It includes suggestions from a new perspective on how to improve the relationship of people to their environment.

     He’s Michael Gallis, a San Francisco native who came to Charlotte by way of Philadelphia and Miami and wouldn’t live anywhere other than the Queen City.

     He is widely considered one of the country’s leading experts in large-scale metropolitan regional development strategies. His firm pioneered a specialty in building frameworks through which public, private and institutional leaders have been mobilized to develop new ways of responding to the challenges and opportunities of states and regions in the 21st century.

     Operating Michael Gallis & Associates from the historic Boxer Building on West Morehead Street, his firm has completed strategic development and transportation programs for a number of cities and regions including Detroit, Cincinnati, Memphis, Mobile, West Michigan, Orlando, San Diego and Charlotte, as well as for several states, including Connecticut, Rhode Island, Illinois, New York and New Jersey and for nations including Canada and the U.S.

     His projects range from planning for growth of the San Antonio Airport, to developing a new vision for Detroit, to mapping the human impact on the southeast’s Piedmont Crescent.

     In a conference room that doubles as a library, he’s surrounded by African art as he muses about his career. Often he pauses to stroke Lilly, the Chihuahua who keeps a bed in the office and whose master is wife Berhan Nebioglu, the love of his life and 30-year companion.

     Originally a student of architecture and urban planning, and later an associate professor of architecture and planning at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, he explains his transition from architecture: “Several things about the methodology of planning began to concern me. I was interested in how you could do planning right and really affect the future of cities.”

     In the early 1980s, he’d gotten involved with a former student in charting the future for the town of Mount Holly. He and three former students started a company to continue that work and called it Noah Studios, because he was pondering Bible stories such as the ark.

     He proposed to UNC Charlotte that it create an urban research entity. When he got no response, he decided to pursue such research professionally.

     In one particular case, an owner of property near Winthrop University had asked Gallis to study potential land uses. Soon, Gallis had impressed Winthrop’s president as well as Rock Hill’s city manager. Rock Hill ultimately hired him to map how that city fit in the greater Charlotte region.

     Gallis found that Rock Hill was part of a ring of small cities about 20 miles from Charlotte’s center. These municipalities included Monroe, Concord-Kannapolis, Mooresville and Gastonia.

     Further, Gallis and his associates showed how Charlotte was growing toward these smaller municipalities in a pattern that created five urban spokes jutting from its core. They had developed the hub-and-spoke model for Charlotte’s growth.

     “People didn’t realize that the strength of the Charlotte area was dependent to some extent on the cities all around being healthy and vibrant, and effectively working together,” he says. “What benefit was it for Charlotte to have a healthy center if everyone around was falling apart?”

 

Ambitious Endeavors

     These and other projects had helped Gallis see a much broader picture of the urban landscape, and in 1988 he formalized his ambitions as Michael Gallis & Associates, Inc.

     By the early 1990s, he was sharing the hub-and-spoke idea with then-mayor Richard Vinroot and other leaders such as city councilwoman Lynn Wheeler and developer Johnny Harris. Selected from five alternatives for Charlotte’s growth, the model encouraged high-density growth along corridors and envisioned people navigating between these corridors, and using them to get in and out of center city.

     Developing that model led to formation of leadership groups such as the regional Committee of 100 and the Urban Coalition which, with Gallis’ guidance, laid the foundation for Charlotte’s transit system.

     Gallis and others including former Charlotte planning director Martin Cramton developed guidelines for growth along the city’s five major spokes, with mass transit a part of each. Today’s light rail to Pineville is one upshot, as are plans for rail transit from center city to UNC Charlotte as well as to Mooresville.

     Gallis found national recognition for his vision in a round-about way. Former Chamber President Carroll Gray asked Gallis to speak on regionalism to the Detroit Chamber’s annual retreat in 1997. He did, and caught the attention of the U.S. Chamber and various other urban planning groups. That led to speeches throughout the nation and planning projects for states such as New Jersey and New York and cities including Detroit, Cincinnati and Orlando.

     “I don’t do architecture anymore,” Gallis says. “I like architecture. I would do it. But our main focus is building frameworks to guide urban futures.”

 

Environmentally Concerned

     Gallis credits his growing concerns for the environment for leading him to pursue a better understanding of human impacts on nature.

     One of his recent efforts involves, for the first time, mapping human activity as a system and overlaying that on a second map of the entire spectrum of nature. He performed this study with the Washington-based Urban Ecosystems Center. From scrutiny of the Piedmont Crescent, which extends from Roanoke, Va., to Birmingham, Ala., Gallis determined that cost-effective growth of the human network must integrate more effectively with natural systems.

     “Traditional studies of human influences on nature have focused on impacts of a specific phenomenon, in specific areas such as too much or too little nitrogen, phosphorous or some other chemical near an industrial facility,” Gallis explains. “Never before has a study looked at human growth as a system and categorized its impacts on the underlying natural system.”

     Over the years, Gallis has grown close to Jerry Orr, aviation director at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. The association started in 1990.

     “People don’t really understand what a big vision Jerry Orr has,” Gallis says. “He understands how the airport connects to the area and how it’s going to be increasingly important going forward.”

     Orr returns the praise. “Michael is great at organizing thoughts and displaying them in graphic form that anybody can look at and understand,” Orr says. “He’s a non-political free-thinker and someone I can sit down with and pour out my heart and get an objective response.”

     The son of a Swedish mother and a Russian father who emigrated from China, Gallis was raised in San Francisco. He enjoyed visiting the studios of famous architect Erich Mendelsohn, who fled Hitler’s Germany in 1933. The elder Gallis was Mendelsohn’s associate.

     “My dad and Mendelsohn shaped my whole life,” Gallis says. “I grew up with this idea of world-changing figures.”

     He attended the University of Southern California but finished his bachelor’s in architecture at the University of California. Then he earned dual master’s in architecture and city planning at the University of Pennsylvania. While there, he met renowned architect Louis Kahn, a faculty member.

     Gallis never took a Kahn-taught class, but teacher and pupil spoke on occasion and formed a special connection because of Gallis’ father’s association with Mendelsohn.

     Also while Gallis was at Penn, Ian McHarg wrote Design With Nature, the book that led to commemoration of Earth Day and the first environmental protection legislation.

     “His book was about how to design cities in harmony with nature,” Gallis says. “And I think that created a context for my career.”

     Another pursuit he started as a student was collecting art. “I didn’t know why I should invest in the stock market when art was much more fun,” he reflects. These days, he owns several hundred African art objects, about 100 Chinese paintings and a smattering of American Indian art and western oil canvasses.

     Gallis performed an internship with the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, under the wing of highly regarded Ed Bacon. He worked on an inner city project and learned ghetto mores. These days, when he visits a metro area new to him, he insists on touring economically challenged neighborhoods. “Don’t just show me the pretty parts of town,” he admonishes.

     His first job was teaching Architecture at the University of Miami, where he soon got involved with inner city planning and helped organize a group called the Martin Luther King Boulevard Development Corporation. After a year, he left the university to go full-time with the MLK group.

     “We were the first in the United States to receive general obligation bonds to rebuild inner cities,” he says.

     The man who hired Gallis at the University of Miami, Bob Anderson, had taken over the Architecture department at UNC Charlotte. He convinced Gallis to join that faculty.

     That was 1974. Gallis stayed until 1997.

 

Globally Networked

     Gallis has built Michael Gallis & Associates to 17 people, adding a real estate group in 1996. Today the firm has transformed into a virtual entity, a nationwide network of linked professionals.

     “All the projects we’ve done have created a methodology by which we can understand global networking,” he says. “On staff, we have six people,” he adds, counting one associate in Shanghai, China. “But senior associates in other companies network with us. Maybe we have 100.”

     An important current project for Gallis is an “infrastructure index” for the U.S. Chamber focused on the nation’s deteriorating bridges, rails and roads. He was an advisor in 2007 to a presidential panel on the “Big Picture Vision” for U.S. infrastructure that was chaired Mary Peters, then U.S. Secretary of Transportation.

     Another career highlight was his 2004 keynote address on the formation and development of the global network to a technology conference at the Royal Academy in London.

     Gallis could live anywhere, but prefers Charlotte. He can click off the reasons, which include the emotional attachment of having started his firm here.

     Charlotte was incredibly interesting,” he says. “Unlike Houston, Atlanta or Los Angeles, cities that had already developed into metropolitan areas, Charlotte was just becoming a metro area.” “Watching it take shape provided us with a learning lab that was unique in America.”

     He calls Charlotte amenable and livable, without big traffic problems.

     “And then there’s the airport and the access,” he says. “You can get to New York in an hour and a half and you can get to Miami in the same amount of time.

     “I’ve fallen in love with Charlotte,” he admits.

     Still, he’s concerned about some of the city’s development plans. The vision of a light rail system lacking a consolidated center city transportation hub is folly, he believes.

     The gangly Gallis enjoys a youthful appearance only partially offset by his full mane of gray hair. At 66, he’s at a point when many consider retirement. Not him.

     “Why are you supposed to retire when you finally reach an age where you feel like you know what you’re doing?” he smiles.

     “The world’s such an exciting place,” he adds. “There’s so much going on. I love to feel like we’re part of it.

     “If you really love what you’re doing, it’s like a hobby,” he concludes.

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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