When Dean Grandin arrived in Orlando 20 years ago to lead the city's planning division, there was no Mall of Millenia, Baldwin Park was a gated military base and Lake Nona was, in his words, "a bunch of cows."
"Orlando in 1999 was a very different place than it is today," he told GrowthSpotter. "It appeared to me to be a very corporate town."
Coming from Miami Beach, where city meetings could go on to the wee hours of the morning, Orlando was a change of pace. Things were quieter, back then, especially downtown.
"It was a very wholesome place, if I could call it that," he said. "I think it still is, but it has different components that make it more than just a family-friendly community."
What drew him to Orlando was its proud tradition of city planning -- a master plan that's coming up on its century mark -- plus the opportunity to shape new greenfield developments in ways he never could in cities that were largely developed.
With his May 3 retirement date fast approaching, Grandin took time to reflect on his legacy as city's planning director and contributions so profound he will be recognized by the American Institute of Architects with the 2019 Award of Merit on May 2.
"One of the things he brought to Orlando an emphasis on quality architecture," RDIP Founding Broker Susan Morris, a former city planner, said. "He wants it to be complementary of the neighborhood around it. Also, he stressed pedestrian-friendly interactions with new development. You have to have something that engages the public."
Grandin is passionate about architecture -- tasteful, durable, authentic architecture.
"I'm all about real architecture," he said. "In Florida ... there's a lot of architecture that's not really architecture. It's a box, and there's some decorations attached to the box. I call it the 'Mr. Potato head syndrome' where you just stick to elements to the building and then, all of a sudden, voilà you have a building.
"We're talking about real architecture," he continued. "So we're talking about real architectural styles, and we're embracing modern contemporary architecture, as well. But we're looking for real features -- we're not looking for fake features."
Craig Ustler has worked closely with Grandin on the master planning and design of Creative Village. "I have always found Dean to be collaborative and open minded while still pushing for good design," he said. "In downtown Orlando, he has strongly advocated for better urban design and walkability. Dean pays attention to detail, and I believe he has helped hold developers to a higher standard, which has been good for the city of Orlando."
One of his best qualities is something that can't be taught, according Downtown Development Board Chairman Thomas Chatmon. It's an ability to see the big picture and potential impacts of what seem like minor code changes.
He recalled returning from a West Coast trip about five years ago and pitching a program to allow for colossal, building-sized murals like the ones that Hollywood studios use in downtown Los Angeles to promote upcoming movies or TV shows. Grandin pointed out the need to protect Orlando's own thriving mural program, and to make sure it doesn't cross over into the advertising realm.
"Taste is something you can't teach," Chatmon said. "Innately, Dean has really good taste."
As one of the architects of the I-Drive Visioning Plan, Grandin worked closely with Alberto Vargas, his counterpart at Orange County.
"Dean played an integral role in our collaborative stakeholder partnership to find solutions to benefit the future of I-Drive since the area straddles both Orange County and the City of Orlando," Vargas said. "He shared his expertise in transit-lane improvements, the permitting process, branding and signing coordination as well as wayfinding signs – all of which we referenced in putting together the I-Drive Visioning Plan.
Having lived and worked in New York and Miami Beach, Grandin made it his mission to design neighborhoods with active streets, water access, protected view corridors and connectivity: places he would want to live.
That explains why he chose Baldwin Park -- one of his first transformative neighborhood projects -- to call home.
"We're not just about building buildings," he said. "We're creating places where people live and work and play -- so it's more than just buildings. It's all the interface with the sidewalks and the neighborhoods and the connections. It's really important that when we're looking at any plan any project, we always look at the broader picture. How does this fit into the overall neighborhood? And I think if I have a legacy it's about getting our planners to understand that -- I think they all have -- to focus on that as a critical issue. You cannot review a project by itself. No project stands by itself. It's always part of the neighborhood, and we need to make sure that it's the best that it can be in terms of integrating into that neighborhood."
Brooke Bonnet, the city's Director of Economic Development, said Grandin's handprint, and his commitment to the ideals of the New Urbanism movement, are reflected in neotraditional communities like Baldwin Park and Lake Nona.
He also served as a mentor to many a young planner over his two decades leading the department. Bonnet was an intern in the department when he started.
"You won't find a better manager in City Hall than Dean Grandin," she said. "That's one of the things he's really known for: mentoring of staff and other managers. Because he's very gentle natured, but he also has a great understanding of the skills it takes to reach a place of compromise. He can stand firm when he needs to stand firm."
Becky Wilson, shareholder at Lowndes and chair of the firm's Land Use, Zoning & Environmental Group, also counts Grandin among her mentors as they worked together to implement projects, such as the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, the Parramore Redevelopment, and more recently, The Packing District.
"Always patient and thoughtful, Dean has put the best interests of the City first," she told GrowthSpotter. "He is steadfast in his efforts when needed and he also looks for compromise when possible. I will miss working with Dean and I wish him all the best in his retirement."
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer credit's Grandin's training and mentorship with creating a seamless succession plan. "That's important to me, because we like to be able to grow and promote people from within."
And Dyer has done just that: naming Chief Planner Elizabeth Dang as the Planning Division Manager, and Chief City Planner Jason Burton as the Assistant Division Manager.
Grandin said the Dang and Burton have strengths that will complement each other. "Jason is more the creative design person; Elizabeth is more of the legislative, regulatory person. And as a team, they they can't be beat," he said. "I think they're working very well together as we go through our transition meetings, and I feel confident as I walk out the door on May 3, that the Division and the city is in good hands."
Grandin said he hopes to remain engaged and involved in the city he loves. Though he does intend to take a cruise or two.
Dyer has a history of tapping former department heads to share their knowledge and insight, and he will find a role for Grandin.
"He's too valuable to not take advantage of what he's willing to offer," he said.