Towns Turn To 19th-Century Tradition Of Charrettes
By REGINE LABOSSIERE Courant Staff Writer
April 28, 2008
As "big box" stores and large developments build up in suburbia, local groups in the Farmington Valley are fed up with a land-use approval process that involves the public mostly in the final stages.
So, in a nod to a 19th-century tradition, residents increasingly are raising the idea of holding charrettes — open workshops involving all local stakeholders — to bring development discussions into the public arena much earlier in the process and taking control of the future of their communities.
The idea is gaining more appeal as area towns struggle with the need to decrease property taxes by bringing in economic development without inviting commercial sprawl. The issue was evident in Simsbury this month, when hundreds of residents expressed their opposition to a mixed-use zoning proposal that would have allowed a big-box store. Their outrage helped defeat the proposal.
"[A charrette is] more by the will of the people rather than something that is imposed by the government," said Justin Falango, a town planner with the Florida urban design firm Dover, Kohl & Partners. The firm conducts charrettes all over the world and has been consulting with Simsbury since last year.
The other appeal, Falango said, is the collaboration.
"Everyone gets to voice their concerns at the same time, and everything is worked through all at once," he said.
Falango, who has worked in Simsbury with Victor Dover, a partner in the Florida firm, said Simsbury is untouched by commercial sprawl development. He warns that if any zoning regulation allows a development in town that doesn't fit in with the character of Simsbury, then residents and town officials could see similar developments constructed.
"By having a charrette, it would affirm what they want the character to be and how they want the character to stay and it would help development," he said.
The word, which means "cart" in French, comes from the 1800s, when proctors at a Parisian art school circulated a cart to collect final drawings while students finished up their work, according to the National Charrette Institute in Portland, Ore. Nowadays, a charrette is an intense series of workshops where all stakeholders in a community — residents, business owners, developers, town officials — come together for at least several days and work with urban design planners and architects to discuss, research and produce a master plan detailing how a section of a municipality or the entire municipality should be developed. A set of drawings is produced each day of the charrette to convey the overall desire of the group.
Charrettes can cost between $75,000 and $500,000, depending on the size and location of what is being reviewed. The cost includes preparation, implementation and fees for the design firms involved and can be paid for by municipalities, grants and developers. Falango said many charrettes lead to zoning regulations or municipal ordinances that enforce the vision created.
Simsbury conducted what First Selectwoman Mary Glassman calls a mini-charrette 10 years ago that led to the town buying land in the town center and developing a performing arts center, bike paths and soccer fields. Now, Glassman said, Simsbury needs to conduct a full charrette that would lead to zoning regulations. Glassman said she knows the idea has support in town based on the turnout at a recent public hearing about the proposed mixed-used zoning regulation that eventually was voted down by the zoning commission.
"The fact that you had more than 500 people come out to a public hearing and comment on a land-use application is a strong message that the residents of Simsbury want to be involved in a public process to plan the development of Simsbury's future," she said.
Both developers and town officials in Connecticut and the rest of the country say that charrettes have helped their economic development strategy. Stephen Soler, president of Georgetown Land Development Co., sponsored a charrette in Redding that led to a zoning regulation change in the Georgetown neighborhood and paved the way for his redevelopment project, which will break ground this summer. He said the charrette was helpful in guiding his plans and navigating through the town's land use boards.
Hamden held a charrette in October that reviewed the city's three major corridors, State Street and Whitney and Dixwell avenues. Town Planner Leslie Creane said the charrette succeeded in getting ideas to improve those areas, and she expects new zoning regulations in Hamden in less than a year.
Mansfield is in the midst of developing a new downtown near the UConn campus. The town had a charrette and lots of public workshops in the past eight years that led to changes in its zoning regulations to allow for mixed-use development for the downtown project, which should break ground next year.
One North Carolina town believes in the public process so much that it has written into its zoning regulations that there must be a charrette for almost every development application submitted. Davidson, N.C., Planning Director Kris Krider said the process is necessary because Davidson is a small town of 9,100 and is issuing 250 building permits a year with an average of 2.5 occupants per unit.
"The growth rate is really high here, and it's about managing that and making the most of opportunity that development brings, and the charrette identifies what those opportunities are. It's usually a much better plan than the developer's," Krider said.
In Connecticut, Farmington Valley residents interested in having a charrette in their towns aren't looking for that extreme of a process, but they want the chance to help shape their town. "In Canton, we really have no vision for what we want the town to look like 20, 25 years from now, and I think the best way to see that vision is to have a charrette," said Tom Sevigny, president of the resident group Canton Advocates for Responsible Expansion. "It's a direct democracy, people getting together and saying what they want the town to look like."
Several groups, including the local economic development agency, have met with Sevigny's group to promote the idea to town officials. Some boards and commissions see the idea as a good one, but one that is not now feasible.Canton First Selectman Dick Barlow said the town will have to redo its plan of conservation and development in the next two years, possibly with the help of state grants. He said a charrette could be included in that process.
Simsbury residents have said they'd like to see a charrette done in the northern and southern gateways, two areas where developments have been proposed, and the town center. But the board of selectmen recently said the project would be too expensive.
"As a compromise, we're certainly open to looking at doing [the town center], which is significantly less money, and using that process to help us develop mixed-use regulation for the other two sites," Glassman said.
"It's the only process, I'm convinced, that will get this town to move forward."
Contact Régine Labossière at firstname.lastname@example.org.