Houghton holds precharrette on downtown
HOUGHTON — Participants in this week’s two-day precharrette for Houghton were pleased with the result.
“I think it was really helpful,” said Houghton City Councilor Joan Suits. “And I think we got a process, which is what we need. It’s going to be a process that people will be happy with.”
The Houghton City Council approved the precharrette in April as a path towards determining goals for the Lakeshore Drive parking deck area and downtown development overall. The city began looking at alternate paths after the Veridea Group withdrew from negotiations with the city over the potential sale and development of the parking deck area in January.
The precharrette was led by a team including Holly Madill, director of the National Charrette Institute at Michigan State University. Work started in small groups; in part because of the acoustics of the Dee Stadium ballroom, they worked as a single group Thursday.
The 12 members represented a range of views and experiences, including city government, downtown business owners, and residents.
“We had people who at the outset probably had quite different views on some aspects of downtown development that could see they could talk productively with each other and share ideas,” said Craig Waddell, a Houghton resident who was one of the 12 participants. “I think that the three members of the charrette team were very good about moderating and laying out ground rules for civil discourse and respecting people’s opinions. And also the group of people we had are people who are able to discuss things civilly. I’m optimistic about this.”
Group members were able to decide on a holistic approach that would look at the downtown as a whole.
“There’s a lot of touch points, a lot of decisions to be made before we even get going, but this was a good first step,” said City Manager Eric Waara. “…Going through this process open-mindedly probably took care of a lot of concerns about disparate points of view. We all want the same thing, it’s just we differ on how to get there.”
The group assembled a timeline of historical events in the downtown from 1940 to the present.
In another, Waara marked up a map of the downtown to show people what portion was publicly versus privately owned. The waterfront trail, which had been a concern of many people during the Veridea discussions, is owned by the state.
“When you get down to developable, re-developable, or taxable property in downtown, there’s a lot less than people think there is,” he said.
Waddell said that seeing how much of the waterfront area was publicly owned was illuminating.
“The deck coming and putting up something taxable in its place would really help the city out a lot,” he said.
Waddell said he would also like to see a video put together to show residents about the changes the city has gone through. During an exercise where the group was asked to describe the downtown in one word, both he and Planning Commissioner Kristine Bradof said “resilience.”
“You see the mines close, the city came back,” he said. “The mall came in, the city downtown came back. Walmart came in, the city came back.”
Participants were given the homework of rating how complex they thought the project would be, with 0 being simple and 5 being the most difficult. The answer was nearly in the middle — 2.6.
“We use that as a gauge for how long does the charrette need to be, how long does the preparation phase need to be,” Madill said.
In the next exercise, they came up with stakeholders and viewpoints that would need to be involved in the charrette, and ways to engage them. Wednesday, they also drew up a proposed schedule for a charrette to be held on five consecutive days.
The group’s consensus was to approach the downtown as a whole. The goals of a full charrette would be to create products such as plans for parking, housing and non-motorized transportation in the downtown.
Six categories were identified as topics for a full charrette: parking, housing, walkability/mobility, development/redevelopment, tax base, culture and aesthetics.
The group also discussed what kind of products would come out of the charrette, and what expertise would be needed. For development, that included a matrix of available space and facilities, a destination marketing portfolio, and renderings and elevations as seen from Montezuma Avenue or Lakeshore Drive. For aesthetics, products could include a form-based code plan and design guidelines, elevations of proposed development, renderings, and a regional inventory of events.
Another idea was creating policies related to health or public-private partnerships. There was also a brief discussion about how to handle things such as e-bikes and e-scooters, which are expected to grow in popularity.
Being able to work with such a diverse group has been a treat, Madill said. Usually, developing the scope of a charrette is done by professionals. While the process went more slowly than it would have with a professional group, the group was productive and did a “great job.”
“We had some great conversations around what the vision is for downtown, and what we want to get out of it,” she said. “There’s been a lot of learning along the way, from each other, from us … it’s been a great group to work with over the last couple days.”
Suits credited the MSU team with connecting disparate ideas on the second day, when the group created the framework for the charrette.
“There’d been a lot of loose ends last night, and then they pulled them together, showed us how it could work, the final product,” said Mayor Pro Tem Robert Megowen.
The next step still has to be determined. The Planning Commission would first need to make a recommendation, which would then need approval from the City Council.
Timing is also an issue. Any process would likely include students, which rules out summer, and snowbirds, which rules out winter, Waara said.
Alan Kiley, owner of Joey’s Seafood & Grill, said he believes the charrette will happen.
“Everybody here looked at the results and said, ‘Yeah, that makes sense,'” he said. “Once we get a final product, we’ll have incorporated all the stakeholders and gotten a lot of input from a lot of different sources. Just learning about the process was very interesting, and I think it’ll be very useful.”
Waddell said he would like to see more people involved in the process, including from the Houghton Waterfront Redevelopment Citizens’ Group, which was formed in opposition to the pace of the Veridea development process.
“The people on the City Council, the Planning Commission, they love the city, they’re working hard,” he said. “People on the citizens’ group, same thing. I think if we help keep that in mind that will help find some way we can all work together to make Houghton a better place.”
Council members said the process could also be used for other city projects down the line.
“I think going through this process taught us a lot about how a group of different viewpoints can start to collect and inform each other and come to a collective consensus, in just two days,” Councilor Virginia Cole. “I think it gives us a lot of hope for what’s possible with a city-wide charrette, and we can make that happen here.”