What’s in it for me? It’s far too often the selfish motive by which all good things are measured.
For Roy Decker, the question reads, “What’s in it for the community?”
The architect and principal of Duvall Decker Architects and partner in Eldon Development Group doesn’t define his practice by personal gain but by the public good created for future generations. Whether traveling the state, helping the Mississippi Development Authority assess communities, or traveling the country to share his design philosophy, he calls on citizens to continue to encourage education, creativity and imagination.
At some point, early in his practice, Decker realized architects are often hired after budget, site work and the program is defined. The notion is architects are then simply decorators. “There’s not a lot of innovation for the community,” he notes. “The people making decisions don’t know the character and grain of a place and how to help a community grow.”
But architects, he says, are trained to do that. It’s why Duvall Decker uses planning and development not as business proposition, but as a way to get to the heart of the need, the character and story of a community. This is their way to facilitate growth and promote richness, diversity, and economic development. “We (often) came to a realization that we were not involved in decisions impacting our community the most.”
Enter Midtown, a Jackson neighborhood bordered by Belhaven, downtown, Fondren and West Jackson.
In 2009, Decker and his team led that community through an analytical “visioning” process with input from the people most affected by it: the neighbors. He calls it a grassroots approach, seeking to define the mechanics of the neighborhood. “We put together this master plan that dealt not with what it should look like, some Utopian plan, but the start of strategic initiatives where we could impact the community.”
Priority actions and investments for housing, security, jobs, health services, education, and recreation were defined by determining how many families were raised there, where they went to church, where they worked and what residents hoped for their neighborhood to be.
Affordable housing was job one. Today, Midtown Affordable Housing is now leasing rehabilitated properties, raising land values, contributing to what Decker calls “the true economics of an inner city neighborhood,” fighting gentrification, giving residents the opportunity to “move up or around.”
The team then approached Millsaps College’s ELSEWorks and their business school, Else School of Management, to help enliven the creative culture for Midtown. The college is largely responsible for launching business start ups and incubators and building existing businesses beyond their cottage operations. Decker notes success stories like Lucky Town Brewery and Mississippi Cold Drip Coffee, both businesses that have grown beyond even their own expectations.
Decker is quick to call this a roadmap, not a pretty picture or policy document for zoning or infrastructure, akin to a similar plan designed for West Jackson, a plan he says is beginning to see success.
In Fondren, Decker has plans of his own that go back fifteen years. Wife and business partner, Anne Marie Decker and he, in 2000, bought the red brick building many know today as the Walker’s Drive-In private dining room and the building at 2915 North State Street where their offices are housed. After renovations, the couple held on to both as investments – buildings that could have a positive impact on the neighborhood.
And today, another Decker driven project is taking shape as his development group, Eldon Development, begins construction on The Fondren, a nine-story hotel to be located behind what will soon be the former Kolb’s Cleaners.
He says, “As we thought about development in our business, it was not just to create another project, but to do so under the same horizon as our architectural work, holding public good and public contribution as the highest order of achievement.”
As is his firm’s philosophy, the hotel will be developed under the guidance of a “triple bottom line” approach, identifying the economic, social and ecological ways the project can best serve the greater good.
Looking at the economic impact, the hotel is projected to contribute $200 million in investment in the city of Jackson over ten years. The city won’t get better without the resources to get better, he notes. Socially, the project looks to “serve history, the story and the culture of community.” From the property’s amphitheater to its rooftop bar, Decker sees The Fondren as “part of street life of the neighborhood.” To that end, his group met with chefs, neighbors, business owners and the community, who he calls “part of the design process.” Ecologically speaking, the hotel will be sustainable, energy efficient and the needed push to improve area infrastructure. He adds, “The whole development is couched in that calculus if we follow our triple bottom line.”
Another such project, in North Fondren, is the Venyu Data Center, under construction in the former McRae’s Department store, where Decker serves as a design consultant. The project is generating jobs, reusing an old building, and was the impetus to negotiate with the city to fix portions of Eubanks Creek, helping surrounding neighbors with flood mitigation. “As a development, the Venyu project fulfills our requirements as holding public good in everything we do,” Decker says. “It’s all about getting in front of projects so innovation can be defined before development can be defined.”
If this all seems philosophical, in part, it is. Decker says architects are trained to be hopeful. “We’re drawn to make things new, to help and, certainly, the artistic side is appealing,” he explains. “Within my architectural education, I was taught that imagination is the work to make things real. I was trained to experiment, to brainstorm and to look for ways to do things better.”
Society doesn’t always know how to value that, and architects, he believes, often lose the ability to practice in that way. But not Decker. He holds on to the childlike wonder of something greater, something more. “As a planner, as a developer, we should exercise our imagination for the betterment of the community. It’s just part of my DNA.”
Is Roy Decker a problem solver — or a visionary? “I don’t like that big word,” he says. Call him an “opportunity identifier.”
“Look at the early modern Kolbs building. I saw it as a hotel, standing across the road at Sneaky Beans, getting my coffee. Knowing Kolbs wanted to downsize, and knowing what we could do, I realized, my gosh, that could be a hotel. The building qualifies for historic tax credits and we get to preserve a great building in Jackson. Add overnight and over weekend (hotel) guests to the market, and I saw something no one else had yet. We don’t have money to give, but what we have is our minds, our labor and our love of the community.”
Invoking the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson, Decker paraphrases the parallels in his own life: “It’s not any one thing, it’s just adding one more flower to the garden. Everyone plays a small part and I see myself, too, innovative, positive, creative and committed to community. This is my tiny corner of Jackson and I love helping neighborhoods come back to life. It’s what I’m trained to do.”