"This is an experiment that worked," journalist Charlie Rose declared as he opened a panel discussion with the master planners of New Albany, including Les Wexner and Jack Kessler, last night at the McCoy Arts Center.
"Where did you get this idea? What were you drinking?" Rose asked, turning to L Brands' chairman and CEO with a joke about expensive wines.
"Probably Diet Coke," Wexner responded, rehashing the New Albany origin story that began with his desire to build a house in the country. He took his plan to Kessler, an influential Columbus developer, who followed suit with his own country house. Soon, the long-time friends and mentees of Columbus banking magnate John G. McCoy cofounded the New Albany Company and developed the master plan for the village. Three decades on, New Albany has grown into the Columbus region's most desirable executive community.
"You've done well in life," Rose again joshed Wexner, "why here?"
Wexner cited his love for Midwestern values and central Ohio's pastoral setting. L Brands, he always felt, was "tremendously advantaged" to be located in Columbus rather than a dense urban fashion hub like New York or L.A.
"Warren Buffett told me the same thing about Omaha," said Rose.
Joining Wexner and Kessler were the members of the original world-class team they convened in the early '90s to engineer their community vision: Gerald McCue, Laurie Olin, Jaquelin Robertson and architect Graham Wyatt.
Rose inquired into the pair's early land deals, comparing the New Albany transactions to Disney's covert acquisition of its Magic Kingdom parcels in Orlando. Kessler discussed the shell companies used to purchase parcels in the 1980s, saying that prices rose from '86 to '89 as it became clear who was buying.
Olin, former chair of Harvard's department of landscape architecture, called the early planning process "a great debating society with lots of drawings."
Robertson, former dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia and master planner of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, said they planned New Albany to be "an exceptional place in an exceptional place in a language that has been tested."
The city's brick Georgian architecture and pastoral common areas were influenced by the Jeffersonian planning of early American towns. Gerald McCue, former dean of faculty at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, recalled bumping into Kessler at the New York Metropolitan Opera. He was soon on a Limited Brands jet to Ohio to "see what (they) were up to" in New Albany. The planners would take many private flights to hamlets across the U.S. and England for inspiration.
Wexner had grown frustrated by the quality of housing available in Columbus in the 1980s. "There were too damn many stucco houses in Columbus."
He was strict in enforcing the aesthetic code as future residents bought into the vision. "That was not a popular decision." Wexner marveled that people didn't like the uniformity: "I said, 'isn't that a great thing?'"
"It made sense to me, as a marketer, that you could really tell a wonderful story" with the landscape and design of the country town, Wexner added.
Many in the city's executive class agreed. Prices in the early 1990s for New Albany's half-acre lots were very high for a region that had few million dollar homes, said Kessler. He and Wexner, New Albany's first "new" residents, pitched the community to leaders across Columbus; one of their early neighbors was John G. McCoy.
Thousands of trees purchased from around Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York and North Carolina were spaced perfectly along New Albany's shaded boulevards and cul-de-sacs. Of the $40 million raised by the New Albany Community Foundation for the community's schools and assets development, $25 has been distributed to date. Of the 800 parcels purchased to date, there are 6,500 acres of New Albany Company land yet to be developed.
As with his Easton development, Wexner credited many of the city's successful innovations-including the layout and timing of the Country Club build--to not knowing what he didn't know.
"I had a sense that I had marketing sense and design sense. I did not know if it extended to architecture and planning," said Wexner. "'I think people will buy this,' turned into 'Let's get this to scale and see what happens.'"
An architecture aficionado, Rose closed the discussion with a lighthearted request that the audience remember the evening and welcome him should he, too, move to New Albany someday.