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Wednesday, May 8,2013

Wrapping up charrette week

Week-long visioning sessions for Grand River/Michigan corridor come to a close

by Andy Balaskovitz
For over three hours inside the Lansing Center last week, politicians worked alongside concerned citizens, engineers and planners alongside transportation advocates to visualize the future of Grand River and Michigan avenues between the Capitol and Webberville.

“Let’s put a brew pub every mile-and-a-half”; “I want to see very purposeful nodes of higher density development”; “streetscape” in East Lansing between campus and Park Lake Road; “Frandor needs more visual appeal”; and, “Is there any reason for someone to develop here?” were a few of the comments overheard at a “vision charrette” for the 20 miles covering Lansing, East Lansing, Meridian Township, Williamston and Webberville.

“This represents regional collaboration. Connecting communities is important,” said John Elsinga, Delhi Township manager. “We want multi-modal that’s vibrant versus a sea of asphalt and empty buildings.”

Elsinga’s assessment of the Grand River/Michigan avenues corridor? “Needs work.”

Wednesday’s event at the Lansing Center, with about 150 participants ranging from mayors to retirees, launched the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission’s “Michigan Ave.-Grand River Ave. Vision Charrette,” which continued over the past week with a design open house and a work-in-progress presentation. The exercise is funded by a three-year, $3 million sustainability grant the planning commission received from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last year. In October, a second charrette week will focus on two or three areas of the corridor for a more “intensive, detailed look” for future development, said Susan Pigg, the commision’s executive director.

“This is going to result in a lot of summary ideas, recommendations and visions that we can share with all of the municipalities along the corridor for them to consider how and if they want to implement them into their own municipal plans and activities,” she said.

The visioning session had three rules: Focus on what you’d like to see, not how you’d get it; build up each other’s ideas, not tear them down; and draw your ideas. Nearly half of the participants were over 50 years old, according to a survey taken during the session.

East Lansing Planning Director Tim Dempsey said that in his community “there’s interest in better connecting our downtown with the rest of the corridor, especially for pedestrians.”

Ideas are good and all, but what do these vision sessions accomplish in the way of real change? That remains to be seen, Dempsey said, but even small change is worth the effort.

“Any time you have people dreaming about what could be, you’re always going to have ideas that don’t come to fruition,” he said. “But if you can realize at least some, you’ve achieved something significant.”

Session leader Victor Dover, of the urban design team Dover, Kohl & Partners, said “charrette” is a French term for “cart,” originating from student architects who were given tight design deadlines in school and would wheel their finished product to advisors. Essentially, charrettes are about “getting as much done with as little time as possible,” Dover said.

Participants broke into groups for two hours, writing thoughts and sketching pictures on aerial views of the entire corridor and different sections. A short presentation by each table followed, which unfolded into a retelling of what participants wanted to see. Session organizers said such a compilation of ideas — which largely focused on diversifying transportation options and maximizing green space along the corridor — is the first of its kind. The goal is to gather the information into a digestible report to be handed over to city officials, planning experts and private developers. 

“Cities are like a great assembly of a work of art — always changing,” Dover said. “We’re taking the work of many and turning it into something that is simple and advisable.”

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