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Houghton Planning Commission recommends precharrette workshop

Houghton City Manager Eric Waara, right, discusses the site plan for a UPS garage during the Planning Commission meeting during a 2018 meeting as Planning Commission members Kristine Bradof and Tom Merz look at the plan. Bradof and Merz were part of Monday’s Planning Commission meeting where the commission voted to recommend the City Council pay for a precharrette workshop. (Photo by Garrett Neese, Houghton Daily Mining Gazette)

HOUGHTON — At a special meeting Monday, the Houghton Planning Commission voted to recommend the City Council pay for a precharrette workshop viewed as a first step toward a plan for the downtown.

The motion described the precharrette workshop as the start of a process that could lead to a plan or vision for the downtown to complement the city’s master plan. Though ultimately not specified in the recommendation, Planning Commission members said a follow-up could lead to a full charrette.

The City Council would make the final decision on whether to fund the precharrette workshop, which the National Charrette Institute said would cost about $7,000.

At last week’s Planning Commission meeting, NCI director Holly Madill walked the planning commission through the steps of the precharrette, where the city would decide what it would want to accomplish with a charrette. Steps include analyzing what the final product of a charrette would be, or how a project’s success would be measured. Another step lays out what stakeholders are involved, and what outcome they would like to see.

The workshop would consist of five sessions of about three hours each. Madill said it could be done as soon as mid-to-late April.

Monday, Planning Commission Chair Tom Merz laid out two questions at the start of Monday’s meeting: Would the focus of the charrette workshop be specific to the parking deck, or include the whole downtown? And who should be involved in the workshop?

Agreeing with Planning Commissioner Kristine Bradof, Madill said it’s more common to see charrettes for a broader area such as the downtown rather than for one site, such as the Lakeshore Drive parking deck.

“I think that focusing on the downtown area would allow you the best opportunity, in the end, eventually beyond the planning workshop to have processes that work for multiple issues,” she said.

The end product of the precharrette would be a request for proposals for a full charrette. Last week, Madill said that process would include together three groups — stakeholders, decision-makers and experts — to help refine a final idea, such as a downtown plan.

The cost of a full charrette varies. Sault Ste. Marie recently went through a $50,000 charrette that also resulted in a form-based code for its downtown.

Planning Commissioner Jen Julien said with the precharrette potentially only having 12 to 15 people, it was important to demonstrate there could be a next step with more public involvement.

“If we go through this process with 12 to 15 people, and then we don’t follow through with the charrette because it comes in too expensive, or for whatever reason, that people are going to say, ‘I wasn’t involved, I didn’t get to speak,'” she said.

Commissioner Mike Needham said the motion should be less specific, as the city council may opt to take a next step that is similar to but separate from the full charrette described by Madill.

During a public comment section at the start of the meeting, residents, including City Councilor Joan Suits, were uniformly positive about the precharrette proposal.

Jim Hertel, a member of the Houghton Waterfront Redevelopment Citizens Group, said the proposal outlined last week showed how the public can be engaged in the decision-making process. He encouraged the city to work with the National Charrette institute or another third party, which would make it easier to reduce the emotional component of the parking deck issue.

“Anyone from the community, much less in-house staff, is going to be at a disadvantage to be seen as impartial,” he said. “Someone with good credentials from the outside is more likely to be seen as unbiased.”

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