For 13 years, Opticos Design, Inc.—a small business that combines sustainable city planning, architecture, and zoning expertise— has been called in by community planners and developers to break down problems with city design, inflexible building codes, and divided community members so that community redevelopment can be done right.
Opticos’ three principals, Stefan Pellegrini, Karen Parolek and her husband Daniel, met at Notre Dame’s architecture school in the early 1990s, at a time when “new urbanism” was beginning to influence the field. According to Karen Parolek, it was a time when the field collectively had begun to realize, “We can’t just keep building suburbs… rather than people moving out of the cities, they should be moving in.” It became en vogue to talk about building town centers, reinforcing city cores. But, she says, “The zoning codes were getting in the way.”
It is an accident of history that zoning codes developed in the early 1900s, originally meant to separate industrial areas from residents—keeping smoke stacks away from where people live and breathe—became as Parolek puts it “the key organizing factor for how we write our zoning codes, what can be built where.” It was no longer allowable to mix retail and residential, to have a little corner grocery on a ground floor with an apartment above. Use zones pushed industry to one location, retail to another, homes elsewhere. Thus came sprawl.
“The upshot of that is that we have to drive every place,” Carol Wyant, executive director of the Form-Based Codes Institute, says with chagrin. “And of course there are a lot of people who can’t drive.” With these zoning issues came the “mallification” of many communities across the country. Wyant adds, “we were getting some really ugly places, buildings were just being churned out that had no character and no charm.”
Opticos started to specialize in helping municipalities rewrite their zoning codes to form-based codes that allow cities to blend uses, mixing in older residential forms like duplexes and Main Street upper apartments. They had the national design and architecture experience to show municipalities exactly how to build smarter communities. But they wouldn’t be the sort to swoop in uninvited.
For Opticos, a B Corp and benefit corporation, it was crucial to serve as a resource to offer communities ideas for different kinds of building structures and new ways of creating walkable communities, but to do so in a way that focuses on each community’s needs. “We’re working in other people’s hometowns,” Parolek says. “We don’t live in these places, they do.”
This means using a charrette process—an intensive planning session where citizens, designers and city planners work together to achieve a mutual vision. In practical terms, this means setting up a week-long open studio in an empty store front, filling the place with drawing tables, computers, pencils, and leaving doors open so residents can stop in during the day. Every other night Opticos has an open community meeting to show its progress.