Design charrette helps Alpena move ahead with plaza project

Design Charrettes are an excellent tool for engaging stakeholders to address development challenges. Alpena is an example of a Michigan city using this process to design a new downtown plaza.

How does a community move forward on a high-stakes, possibly contentious development challenge? Community leaders and residents in the City of Alpena are facing just this situation with a proposed downtown public plaza. A December 2012 Design Charrette was a valuable way to bring stakeholders together to address these issues in that city.

A Charrette is a multi-day planning event assembles property owners, businesses, residents, and community leaders to create feasible and desirable design solutions. The term “charrette” comes from 19th century Paris, where students at the Beaux Arts School frantically completed their designs and placed them on a cart, or “charrette.”

Charrettes are a useful tool for many types of efforts involving physical design: redevelopment projects, master plans, regional visioning, neighborhood plans, and corridor designs. One of the best-known systems for organizing and conducting successful charrettes is available from the National Charrette Institute.

Alpena was one of five Michigan communities to receive design help through the MIPlace Partnership Initiative PlacePlans Program. Experts from the Michigan Municipal League (MML), Michigan State University’s School of Planning, Design and Construction, and Michigan State University Extension worked with community leaders to develop preliminary designs for the new plaza.

In contrast to typical planning processes, charrettes are quick, with final designs developed in many cases days rather than many months. They always involve extensive community participation. The Alpena project began with a large, festive public workshop, called “Plaza Palooza,” where residents expressed their vision for the downtown area. That event was followed by individual interviews of key leaders and then an intensive, three-day charrette.

The Alpena Charrette took place in a downtown building adjacent to the proposed plaza location. During the first day of the event, residents stopped by to offer their ideas for activities and features they would like to see in the plaza. That evening, MSU landscape architecture students translated those ideas in to several three-dimensional conceptual designs. During the second day, residents reacted to these designs, providing valuable perspectives that the designers used to refine the plans. The charrette concluded with a public meeting where community members viewed the designs and offered their feedback. The project team will visit Alpena two more times during winter and spring 2013 to refine the initial design into one final plan.

The hallmark of a charrette is engagement – hearing many ideas and concerns from supporters and skeptics. In the end, this approach helps a community come together around a plan that considers all those points of view.

Charrettes are an excellent tool for helping Michigan communities develop great places, in many cases a better way than typically contentious, draw-out planning efforts.

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