Q&A with Clark Atkinson, Chief Development Officer at Zocalo

Zocalo Community Development has plans to build a new hybrid condo and affordable housing development across from Denver’s Sloans Lake.
Clark Atkinson

Clark Atkinson, chief development officer at Denver-based Zocalo Community Development, has more than 30 years industry experience. He has led teams to win four national awards, having built more than 17.5 million square feet of community, hospitality, multi-family, residential and institutional landmarks. Today, Clark leads Zocalo in its efforts to transform the real estate industry into a force for good by building and strengthening vibrant, inclusive, and equitable communities that are good for people and the planet.

Facts about Clark:

  • He received his Masters of Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, and a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from Kansas State University.
  • Clark was an early pioneer in the sustainability movement as co-editor of a book entitled A Primer on Sustainable Building.
  • He is considered an expert in cold climate construction and design.
  • Clark has started and successfully managed four real estate development and operating companies, with investments in office, multifamily, and hospitality developments.

What sparked your interest in CRE/development?

A few years out of college, I made a big leap from one of the largest corporations in the world to a tiny entrepreneurial developer in Philadelphia. I soon found myself running the construction company with about 90 employees and a custom millshop and metal shop. The developer, a vertically integrated firm with architects and construction in house, specialized in re-developing historic properties in the historic district and downtown Philadelphia, and had recently hired two newly minted graduates from MIT’s Center for Real Estate Development. Interaction with those two guys along with the owners of the firm (graduates from Harvard MBA and UPenn’s program in Architecture), got me thinking this was a pretty dynamic and creative business.

What do you consider the most rewarding moment in your career?

The grand opening of the Aspen Music Associates Benedict Performance Hall in Aspen. Although we only had nine months to complete construction, we successfully built through the winter and were able to host a sold out grand opening and performance including 125 choral singers and over 150 orchestral members from all over the word on stage. Some people hear music in their head when they do something amazing, but this was for REAL – truly heaven on earth! The MAA summer concerts at the venue still are heaven on earth. That, and watching previously homeless vets move into an affordable housing project we participated in leading. I lead the initiative to donate our services to Catholic Outreach for the development of two affordable housing projects for chronically homeless and was present watching them move in. No words can describe the experience.

What advice do you have for the next generation of leaders?

Listen. Listen and respond. Listen and respond appropriately to your customer, your friends, your employees and most of all, your family. Listen with every fiber of your body. Keep a pulse on what is happening around you, against you, for you, and inside you. And be gracious and thankful for all of it.

Which professional accomplishment gives you the most pride and what makes it so rewarding?

Perhaps the “miracle schedule” we accomplished by building the first LEED-certified project in Colorado at 11,200 feet on top of Aspen Mountain in just eight months – the Sundeck Restaurant for the Aspen Skiing Company. Cutting edge thinking went into the design, entitlement challenges were overcome with collaborative listening, logistical challenges were immense and required creativity, environmental challenges were met with a view towards stewardship, and systems intelligence contributed to a complex timber, precast and hand-crafted structure. In the end, it was shear guts and willpower that got it done on time, all within a high-performing team. The project was very satisfying. Our team won a national award for that one.

Who has been a mentor to you in your career?

So many. For creativity: Morris Schindler, Larry Yaw and Harry Teague, who are architects respectively in Philadelphia and in Aspen. For the importance of friendships in business: George Shaw. For work ethic:my dad.

How does Zocalo stand out in the Denver market?

Zocalo can best be described as a pioneer of sustainable development. We take a community- responsive, people-focused approach to all of our projects. We have built Zocalo as a company on a mission to transform the real estate industry into a force for good. The most important way we do that is through our people. We aim to foster a culture that allows our employees to build relationships, collaborate and bring innovative ideas to life.

What is the best advice you ever received?

Treat others as you would want them to treat you.

Growing up, what did you aspire to be?

I’m still growing up, and still get a thrill out of creating things.

Describe a moment, turning point, or epiphany that made the difference in your life?

My life is a series of epiphanies and awakenings – like beads on a tether. My family frequently ground me to what is really important. My survival from cancer and a couple near-death airplane flights remind me of life’s fragility. And that keeps me grounded to the personal struggle, and aspirations, that every person has in their life.

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