Wednesday, June 4, 2008

2007 Downtown Charrette Report - Vol. 1

The literal French term for "cart," charrette, is the nom du jour used to describe the discrete event behind the truly progressive trend of citizen-based participatory planning. The implied meaning of the term is of a condensed workshop akin to the collegiate environment in the days and even hours or minutes before an assignment is to be collected and placed in the cart.

The Rochester Regional Community Design Center coordinated and facilitated our charrette, which was held in January of 2007, to serve as a basis of strategic planning and an amendment to the Center City master plan. The first drawings were released to the public in February of 2008 followed by the 152 page report in May.

There are two truths I've found in the mere 30 minutes I've spent looking at the document. First, to condense this into any kind of readable blog-form for dissemination to the casual observer is going to take several entries. Second, it will be worth my while to purchase a real copy for $30 direct from the Design Center. Within the 16 page section known as Analysis/Current Conditions, there are 6 placeholder pages in the PDF version that purport to contain large fold-out maps of things like land use and street frontage quality, topics very dear to my urban inclination. As a result, I will quickly relate some of the three-page executive summary today and make the guts of the report a recurring topic. The PDF version of the document will subsequently be linked to in the Rochester Resources sidebar.

Hundreds of design professionals, community leaders, and area citizens participated in the process of creating this vision plan. For three days, the volunteers organized largely around five mini-districts (noting Jacobsian requirements of district size), pushing forth hundreds more unique ideas that have been developed into a practical form by professionals over the last year. The invitation and inclusion of all is critical for the concepts of ownership, investment, shared goals, and support of the community at large.

This design charrette seeked to build on the Eight Guiding Principles offered by citizens in 2000 at the first, less-intensive charrette:
  • Pedestrian Friendly Downtown
  • Connectivity
  • Greener Downtown
  • Beautiful Gateways
  • Elimination of the Inner Loop
  • Making the River a Central Feature
  • Encouraging Housing Development
  • Creation of Downtown Design Standards

From these ideals, the 2007 charrette would attempt to establish a greater level of detail and comprehensiveness. Another concern to tackle would be that of coordinated treatment of the urban fabric in light of the momentum created by an increased number of proposed projects for the downtown. From this effort, an updated list of key concepts, each of greater specificity emerged:

  • Actively engage citizens, developers, investors and other stakeholders and the public sector in a process to build support and promote civic pride
  • Provide incentives and standards for high quality development that serve a wide spectrum of people and uses
  • Build strong partnerships and follow a coordinated approach to development
  • Make downtown housing available to a diverse population including middle class workers
  • Increase the ease of getting around, providing safe, accessible means to mobility as an alternative to the automobile
  • View downtown as a destination as opposed to a place to get through quickly, changing our
    fundamental approach to street design, traffic management and circulation to create a pedestrian-friendly environment.

I'll finish today by quoting directly a paragraph that hits on many of my main themes from energy concerns to the excitement and amenities of the dense urban lifestyle. I think this single paragraph captures the pioneering spirit of the planners associated with the Design Center with a nod to the rapidly becoming self-evident truth that traditional city and neighborhood design was the most efficient, most sustainable, and ultimately most consciously desirable form of 'urban' development in our nation's history.

"It is likely that downtown Rochester will become more economically competitive as we move into an era of expensive oil and energy with the need to conserve. Taking advantage of these conditions will require both cooperation and partnerships between the public and private sectors and necessitate a renewed focus on the condition of the infrastructure and public realm. Consistent with these trends, there will be new opportunities to grow the tax base, given planned and current key redevelopment projects that will significantly enhance and reinvigorate downtown."

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