Christopher Shires figured he was going to be a lifer with the city of West Des Moines. He joined the Planning Department in 1997, but had worked for the city as an intern prior to that and even helped sandbag City Hall prior to the 1993 floods. His mother worked for the city. But he got a telephone call earlier this year from Brian Clark, principal with Confluence landscape architects, asking whether Shires would like to see the world from a private-sector perspective and manage the firm’s new city and district planning division. If anyone else had called, Shires would have said “Thanks but no thanks.” But he had worked with Confluence on previous projects, including the Wells Fargo & Co. campus. So Shires left his job as development manager for the city of West Des Moines on Sept. 13 and went to work for Confluence on Sept. 16.

Why did you make the switch to the private sector?

I had worked with Brian Clark and Chris Della Vedova for years, and I always respected their work and their approach. When I would find out they were the design professionals on a project, there was a level of comfort. When the Wells Fargo West Des Moines campus was being conceptualized, they were involved, and I was on the bus tour they did to the Sprint (Nextel Corp.) campus in Kansas City. What made me excited about this firm was their approach to working with their client. Ultimately, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity because of who these guys are. I don’t think I would have gone to another consulting firm.

What can you do here that you can’t do with the city?

You don’t always get to do the level of planning that I would have hoped. There is a lot of reactionary planning. I really was more of manager and doing less of things I really enjoy: master planning, code updates, the things that make a plan more exciting. I was very much managing a development review process rather than building new things. As much fun as it was working with West Des Moines, because the city is doing a lot of stuff, some tremendous projects, I’m going to be able to do that regionally here. I’m going to be able to work with cities, counties, private projects.

What project stands out for you?

I was involved with the west side visioning plan update, and that was a direct result of Jordan Creek Town Center mall. That dramatically changed development, where we created a regional commercial center.
With Jordan Creek, were you flying by seat of your pants?

Yes and no. It was a little overwhelming. I was a staff planner then. But we had some time to react. It was going to take a while to build the mall; it was going to take a while for other development to follow. The world was changing. We were able to do some visioning with property owners.

At that time, our city engineer spent a lot of time thinking about the road network. That took a lot of vision. There was a lot of arguing on road design and then the associated land uses around that. It really came down to how West Des Moines was going to use this as an opportunity. You get one of these once every 25 or 30 years. There were some fundamental shifts in road locations. E.P. True Parkway was changed. Jordan Creek Parkway was changed. Mills Civic Parkway stands out. It was just a two-lane county road … now it is six lanes wide. It’s just amazing when you drive out there … in a short time you go from a country road to street designed to move traffic as efficiently as possible.. 

You have to give credit to everybody involved. It was bullish. It was bold. It was a commitment to spend millions of dollars and I think the results speak for themselves. There’s creative architecture. There were a lot of individual struggles, but there was enough value and enthusiasm in the corridor that developers, retailers were willing to do something different. We expected good design and I would say we got it.

Was there anything that didn’t play out the way you hoped?

Oh yeah. On occasion, I kind of look back and wish that something had worked out differently. Sometimes it’s money. The project was worth the cost to the city, to the developer. I was sometimes disappointed that there wasn’t enough money to make the project happen. Sometimes it’s just the land shape or size. On a couple of occasions, I might have recommended something differently or said, “Just don’t do this; don’t make that land use change.”

You’re going to be involved with the Alice’s Road planning.

They have done a lot of planning. I’m hoping I can step back and use my experiences, what I’ve done right, what I’ve done wrong, to help them. Ultimately, this is the community’s plan. I’m excited that I can use my experience to help them meet the desires that they have.