March 3 2010 12:00 AM

Visiting speaker swears by hot development tool


Wedding planners are so last decade. The super planner of today is the charrette leader.

“Charrette” has become the term of art for gatherings of developers, officials, citizens, and anybody else in town with an interest in a proposed redevelopment project or zoning overhaul.

Bill Lennertz, co-founder in 2001 of the Portland, Ore.-based National Charrette Institute, came to Lansing last week to tutor 28 urban planners, developers and students from all over Michigan in the delicate art of running a charrette.

Municipalities sometimes run charrettes, but usually they are run by a team of professional designers and planners who are certified by a trainer like Lennertz.

Lennertz said the charrette process is ideal for getting complicated projects “unstuck.” His non-profit has trained 2,700 people to run charrettes since 2002.

Some cities (none in Michigan) have begun to require charrettes run by certified leaders when they request proposals for big developments.

“Charrette” comes from 19th-century Paris, when professors at the Ecole des Beaux Arts wheeled a cart around to pick up art projects as they came due. The rumble of the cart, or charrette, spurred the students to finish their work.

“Developers know time is your biggest enemy,” Lennertz told the group. In most charrettes, a professional design team works for five or six days and soaks up input from everybody with a stake in a big project.

As an example, Lennertz cited a 2005 charrette over an office-condo-transit center in Contra Costa, Calif. He said the charrette persuaded the leader of neighborhood opposition there to join the project’s steering committee.

“He walked out shaking my hand six days later,” Lennertz said.

The NIMBY in question is James Hunt, a professor of civil engineering at the University of California Berkeley who has lived in the project area for 27 years.

Reached by phone Monday, Hunt seemed to have let go of Lennertz’s hand.

“The residents felt this was a way for the county to achieve what it wanted and claim they had consulted us,” he said.

Public planning processes weren’t working, Hunt said, so the community tried a charrette.

“You hire a bunch of consultants, you have a bunch of pictures on the wall where everybody gets to put yellow stickies on there with their ideas,” Hunt said. “Then somebody comes along and picks and chooses, saying ‘This is what the public wanted.’”

Hunt said the transit village lacks amenities promised to the community as “mitigation” of the increased traffic it would bring. He said a public meeting space “slowly disappeared,” free shuttle buses to reduce local car traffic were “penciled out,” the roof changed, a proposed green space shrank, and the buildings are taller than promised.

“In the end, we got screwed,” Hunt said. “It was a lot of consultants trying to tell the public they were being listened to.”

Hunt suggested that some projects are simply too complex to design in five or six days.

“Sometimes you can take the word ‘charrette’ and make it ‘charade,’ but that’s being cynical,” he said.

wasn’t above tweaking development opponents. Early in the workshop,
just before mentioning Hunt, he flashed a slide of a crying baby.

“Some people find change hard to take,” he said.

workshop got high marks from Tim Hunnicutt, a DeWitt planning
commissioner. Hunnicutt, a developer, said he came to the workshop in
hopes of shoring up his “credibility” with his fellow planners.

“It’s important to be able to explain how and why things should be bought into,” Hunnicutt said.

the workshop, Lennertz stressed the importance of bringing in as many
stakeholders as possible early in the development process.

“We’re going to bring everybody who might trip us up later on,” Lennertz said.

said those who attack a project after the charrette is over, claiming
they weren’t included, are known as “alligators.”)

Hunnicutt cited a
mixed-use residentialoffice project that went up on the Looking Glass
River five years ago.

DeWitt City Council, Planning Commission and citizens disagreed over
what could be done with the property. A new storm water management
ordinance muddied the matter further.

Hunnicutt said, the designers ended up doing “more redrawing than drawing.”

“Had a charrette been conducted, it would have been a much smoother process,” Hunnicutt said.

Hunnicutt has his eye on two privately held downtown DeWitt properties
he declined to name. One of the owners isn’t selling, and he hopes a
public design charrette will break the logjam.

might zone at a charrette, but you won’t fall asleep. Urban development
projects and zoning changes go hand in hand. Last week’s workshop
applied the charrette concept to both.

zoning codes are the DNA of the new urbanism, a blueprint for fighting
sprawl, encouraging walkability and mixing land use.

During last week’s workshop, Lennertz led the group through a real case study: creating form-based zoning codes for Bay City.

zoning squares off lonely islands of usage that butt against each other
but don’t mix. Form-based codes aim at braiding housing, businesses,
retail and other uses together.

Bedell of the Bay City Planning Department was doubly pleased to be in
the room. For the zoning workshop, participants took on the roles of
Bay City’s merchants, fire chief, environmentalists and other
stakeholders and Lennertz walked them through a simulated charrette.

Bedell said he considered the session “a dress rehearsal” for Bay City’s planned move to form-based codes some time this year.

The charrette process may still produce winners and losers, but the art of the charrette lies largely in language.

“They don’t call it conflict resolution,” Lennertz said. “They call it consensus building.”