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Hewitt is the city manager of Greensburg, the Kansas town that was obliterated by a tornado last May. The BNIM architects are presenting a new city that will be built to the highest environmental standards, and the Discovery Channel has been watching their every move for months, capturing footage for a reality series called Eco-Town. With a little narration help from actor Leonardo DiCaprio, the show is scheduled to debut this summer.
Just before lunch, Berkebile ducks around the group and takes a seat at the back of the room. He chats quietly with one of the production assistants. He may be the man in charge, but Berkebile keeps a low profile.
"Hey, Bob, didn't see you sneak in," Hewitt says a few minutes later.
That's the way Berkebile wants it, though.
He didn't want to blow into rural Kansas as a big-city architect dictating the direction of the town. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius announced early on that she hoped Greensburg would be rebuilt as an environmental model. Berkebile wanted to help — but only if the residents of Greensburg invited his team to do the work.
Berkebile has been down this road before. In 1993, the entire town of Pattonsburg, Missouri, relocated after being ravaged by two floods. The town's mayor, David Warford, invited a team of experts led by Berkebile, who helped create a new master plan for the town that incorporated green principles.
A decade later, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, Berkebile was helping plan a 35th-anniversary party for the firm's clients. Instead of spending $25,000 on the anniversary bash, BNIM donated the money to Tulane University's community rebuilding efforts. Since then, Berkebile has taken a number of trips to the Lower 9th Ward, where he's working with the Holy Cross Neighborhood and actor Brad Pitt's "Make It Right" organization to rebuild homes that are affordable and environmentally sustainable.
To date, Greensburg has paid BNIM $286,000 to create a master plan for the town and design a new city hall, Big Well Museum and a "business incubator" center used to encourage start-up businesses. Earlier this year, the local council committed to becoming the first city in the country to have every city-owned structure meet the Green Building Council's highest platinum ranking.
While Greensburg officials are eating sandwiches and snickerdoodles for lunch, Berkebile asks about the prospect of combining the county and city governments for the sake of efficiency. With a streamlined system, he adds, they might be able to fit all government services into one building and vacate the old courthouse. If that space were converted into housing units, it would qualify for historical tax credits, he suggests.
"That's radical," one of the city staffers says. The Greensburg officials chuckle.
Hewitt talks about rebuilding Greensburg as though he's scouting for a football team: "Stronger, bigger, better." But he appreciates Berkebile's vision, even when it's a little out there.
By the end of the day, Hewitt and his crew are back on the road to central Kansas. The city manager acknowledges that Greensburg is still not much to look at. But the city and BNIM have wrapped up phase one — they've even put together an impressive video model of what the entire town will look like. "We'll see a big blitz this spring and summer," Hewitt says of construction plans.
Berkebile hopes that blitz keeps its environmental edge. And not just in Greensburg but in Kansas City, too.
As audience members polish off their salmon and wild rice during a recent environmental luncheon at the Hilton President Hotel in downtown Kansas City, Berkebile paces calmly under the glint of a gold chandelier at the front of the ornate ballroom. He challenges the group of business leaders and government types with disturbing charts of thickening hurricane patterns, spiking carbon-dioxide graphs, and images of planet Earth smoldering in what looks like an erupting volcano. "We're 2 degrees from total disaster," he says of global warming.