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Repairer of the Breach 

City loses great advocate for neighborhoods

Warren Burgess is dead; there is an empty space in my heart for a much loved and respected colleague. He died suddenly last week from complications following recent surgery, and even as I write, I keep bursting into tears. Warren's skill and passion for good planning and urban design touched many people in this city, where he worked as an urban designer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission for many years, and in Davidson, where he was planning director from 2000-2003. Up till his untimely death, he employed his skills in the private sector, working with the local architecture and planning firm Neighboring Concepts.

Among his friends and colleagues, Warren was legendary — for his amazingly untidy offices, where books, plans and beautiful drawings lived side by side in cacophonous harmony; for his wonderful ink and watercolor sketches that brought his urban plans to life and captured forever Charlotte's fading stock of historic buildings; and for his passionate commitment to neighborhoods in Charlotte.

Warren was a loyal member of the great tradition in American city planning that honored neighborhoods as the foundation stones of American cities. The idea was formalized in the 1920s with New York sociologist Clarence Perry's social and spatial definition of the "neighborhood unit"; it continued with Jane Jacobs' famous 1960s polemic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, defending neighborhoods against the tyranny of modernist planners and urban renewal, and was revived in the 1980s by architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk under the rubric of Traditional Neighborhood Development (later New Urbanism).

With his skill as an artist and designer, Warren illustrated an ideal that's been a beacon for progressive professionals, a vision of the city ennobled with walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, each with fine streets and public spaces as the everyday settings for community and democracy. At times this beacon's been obscured by dust clouds rising from urban renewal's rampage of demolition, or shrouded in palls of pollution from our madcap car culture, but never, ever has it been extinguished.

Warren Burgess was a torchbearer and guardian of this eternal flame.

In his lengthy professional career, he shaped many neighborhood plans in Charlotte but one stands out in my mind: Charlotte's Third Ward, where Warren lived at the time of his death. Urban planning is always a collaborative exercise involving architects, planners, urban designers, landscape architects, traffic engineers, developers and real estate professionals, politicians, and above all, the community of citizens. But always in any good team, there's one person whose voice may not be the loudest or most strident, but who always reminds us of the need for beauty and good design in our lives. That's why I always think of Charlotte's 1997 Third Ward Plan as "Warren's Plan."

Not only is the document full of his beautiful sketches, but it's packed with his passion to make great places for people. Warren's large aerial perspective drawing looking east along Trade Street toward the Bank of America Tower at the Square captures the essence of good urbanism. It uncannily presaged the present day Gateway Village, with high-density, mixed-use development lining the street and feathering back into lower density apartments and single-family homes. His vision became stone.

As he struggled with failing health, Warren was working with me on a new neighborhood plan for Huntersville, around the proposed rebuilt Long Creek Elementary School. Together we crafted a plan that placed the refurbished school at the heart of a new, walkable neighborhood, creating the very real possibility that some day in the future, parents and children might once again be free to walk to school, and live in a community that was affordable to a wide range of American families. In making the plan Warren was passionate, as he always was, about the design of streets as places for people, not just cars. All his drawings illustrated wonderful, tree-lined spaces — places where it's safe and pleasant to live a full life in the community.

Warren called and left me a message the day before he died, simply to say he wasn't feeling well, and wouldn't be able to work on the plan for a while. By the time I returned his call he was already in the hospital, fighting for his life. I hope Huntersville and Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools carry his vision forward. It would be a fine legacy.

Years ago, a scrap of paper floated down from the pile on Warren's desk and I picked it up, meaning to give it back to him. "No, you keep it," he said. "I've always liked that quote." It was from the Book of Isaiah Chapter 58, verse 12:

"And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;

You shall raise up the foundations of many generations;

You shall be called the repairer of the breach;

The restorer of streets to dwell in."

My friend Warren Burgess could have no more fitting epitaph.

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