City Planner: Robert Peters

Photo by D. Thomas

I, for one, have enormous respect for city planners, the very best of them of which Robert Peters is one. Consider for a moment the confines within which the city planner must work. He (or she) is accountable to a mayor and often must represent the mayor’s wishes with both the City Council and the larger community.

At the same time, the city planner must educate the mayor, members of the council, developers and citizens on the agreed-to rules and regulations that govern the growth of the city. He must help them understand the Master Plan.


There are zoning requirements, building permits, building inspections, demolitions, new housing developments, in-fill housing, the balance of urban density with the spread of suburban sites, transportation, historic preservation, and more.

The city planner attends to all of this while standing on shifting ground. Mayors and their administrations come and go. Councilpersons come and go. New developers enter the picture and new community leaders emerge; agendas change. There are days, weeks, when no one is happy.

Valuing character and function

Consider, for example, the following: a new mayor is elected, elected perhaps with financial support from a specific developer. To return the favor, the mayor wants the developer’s project “fast tracked”. And yet, the project falls short of key criteria and as it stands, could threaten the character of a valued part of the city. The interpersonal and political tact required in situations such as these is considerable.

When an ill-conceived project does go through, the city planner must practice one of his rarely acknowledged talents. Yes, the ill-placed project is not what had been hoped for, or planned for, but there it is, a part of what is now given. The city planner’s task is to consider how what is now given can be worked with so that it fits with a desirable future. The artist, Willem de Kooning, when considering how his work cast new light on the history of art, affirmed: “The past does not influence me; I influence it.” This is one of the fine arts practiced by the city planner, taking what results from factors he could not control and fitting it into a new plan that values both character and function.

The Big Picture

The city planner recognizes that the city is made of many parts: Individuals, households, neighborhoods, civic, business and political districts, the region within which the city sits… the health of each part related to the health of the whole and vise versa. The guiding value is, and must be, quality of life. Of necessity and often by disposition, the city planner operates with the big picture in mind.

“…at all levels of analysis parts are parts-of-wholes, organs of the whole organism, and their well functioning is for the sake of the whole. And all organisms at all levels are wholes-of-parts that feed back into the parts, feeding and sustaining them for their allotted time within the whole.” — Bruce Wilshire

Photo by D. Thomas

Performance Art

All of this describes the job that Mr. Peters performed deftly throughout his career. It says nothing, however, of the spirit with which he worked.

At Mr. Peters’ retirement party—a gala affair attended by several hundred people—a number of individuals spoke and it was my honor to be among them.

I thought when I first imagined this exhibit that I would quote from my remarks but re-reading them leads me to include them in their entirety. The full toast describes both the milieu that was the Planning Department when I joined it as well as the performance artist at its center.

A Toast for Robert Peters

After three glasses of wine and given the presentations that have preceded me, if I had anything on Bob Peters, believe me, I would share it now.

Lacking that, however, I will tell you what it was like to join a department run by Bob. Truthfully, it was wonderful!

I did not think so at first. In the beginning, I thought I had entered an asylum.  Bob and his colleagues would yell to one another across the entire 11th floor of the Civic Center. They would announce that they were not happy! Or, perhaps, that they were happy! They would speak in code, insider jokes, and they would laugh riotously. The medications seemed off to me.

It was only later that I saw the sanity in what they were doing.  After I saw and came to appreciate the mountain of detail with which they had to contend: federal and state regulations, city building codes, tax incentive and disincentive programs, intricate and complex funding strategies, the task of honoring the wishes of different administrations, and on top of it all, a larger public at a loss to understand why things can’t move more quickly. How else to counter the weight and pull of all of that except through theater!

That is what I entered when I joined the Planning Department, some kind of workplace-theater, populated with the most dazzling characters and at its center was Mr. Peters.

I cannot tell you how many meetings I have been in only to have Bob enter and create a scene! He would perform his say and the rest of us would be left thinking that if we had been making a movie, we could have shot that scene in a single take! And further, that fellow who played Bob Peters… he was perfectly cast!

Shortly after I joined the Planning Department, someone said to me that he thought that Bob Peters was the consummate professional.When I asked him what he meant, he said, “You know, like Michael Jordon…he shows up for every game ready to play.”

Several years ago, I was at a gallery opening in one of the rehabilitated buildings in the downtown area. When the owner of the building learned I worked in the Planning Department, he asked me to follow him to his office. When we were there, he pulled from his desk drawer a napkin on which appeared a drawing of what increasingly looked like buildings within downtown city blocks. He said he did not remember how he came to possess the napkin but he knew vividly the story behind it.

Apparently, it was made late one night in M’s Pub.  Bob and several others had gathered—he mentioned Greg Petersen, Tom Blair—I’m sorry, I know I am leaving out individuals who might have been there.  The only certainty in this fellow’s mind was that Bob Peters held the pen.

Bob and this small circle of conspirators had recently grasped the potential of a new tool—tax increment financing, I believe. And now, on this napkin, they were going block-by-block, building-by-building, creating a plan for making large portions of the downtown area new, revitalized.

I will tell you that there were some wonderful works of art in that man’s gallery but none that he valued more than the napkin-as-artifact.   He said that out of respect he hoped someday to frame the napkin and give it to Mr. Peters.

A few weeks ago, I stood with Bob looking at a detailed aerial photograph of the larger downtown area.  “OK,” I said, “point to the blocks, the buildings that in any way you have had a hand in building, changing, creating.”  Within moments, the photograph was covered with fingerprints.

Later, I asked: “What now?  I mean, what can follow this, what can be as large?”  Bob said the only thing he could imagine would be to form a band.

I am told that when you have had the accomplishments that Bob has had in his career that it is possible to lean back and conclude that you are brilliant, perhaps some kind of genius.  I have heard that this is possible but not if you are married.

I cannot complete my remarks without a nod to Barbara. In this crazy world, “like” has a way of attracting “like”. I have been as impressed with Barbara’s view—her insight, her eye for the artistic, her sense of what does and does not make sense—as I have been with Bob’s. I can only imagine how they have served to sharpen and refine one another’s sensibilities.

So, thirty-two years… If you will raise your glass…

To Planning, Improvisation, and the Art of Life! — To Bob and Barbara Peters

A brief video

It has been fifteen years since Mr. Peters’ retirement party. In that time, he has formed his own consulting company: A one-man shop, taking on only those projects that afford a creative challenge.

Not long after Mr. Peters retired, I surprised him in his new office with my video camera running. I threw every special effect available to me into the brief video that resulted.

“Detachment within involvement”

Over the years, I have thought about the pleasure and frankly, the play that Mr. Peters brought to his everyday work life. Play, sustained play is only possible in the work-a-day world, or so it seems to me, when you fully understand your subject matter, the tools and processes associated with your profession. It is only possible when you know what you are doing. The philosopher Bruce Wilshire called it “detachment within involvement.” It is a beautiful thing, the ability to interact creatively with the requirements of the moment without being drawn into the drama.


Mr. Peters continues with his consulting work. Along with his wife, Barbara, an artist in her own right, he lives part of the year in Laguna Beach, taking in the art and lifestyle of that coastal community.

Photo by D. Thomas


What follows are pictures of Mr. Peters signature project: The Hilton Hotel in downtown Omaha. Significantly, Mr. Peters insisted that artwork used on hotel grounds and throughout the interior of the hotel, artwork that would further give the hotel its distinctiveness, be provided by local and regional artists.

To contact Mr. Peters: [email protected]


David Thomas, PhD