Sunday, November 13, 2011

Downtown Springfield Design Charrette

Generating ideas at Table 6 - Downtown Springfield Design Charrette (all photos mine unless otherwise noted)

The local emerging design professionals group Design|Spring produced its first community design charrette this past Saturday. The goal of the successful charrette was to offer ideas for improving a six-block stretch of Main Street between Pioneer Parkway West and 8th Street in downtown Springfield. Design|Spring believed the event could be a spark that leads to real improvements for the pedestrian experience along Main Street, which is the historic center of commercial life in the downtown.

The Southwestern Oregon chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA-SWO) sponsored the charrette, with additional support from the Neighborhood Economic Development Corporation (NEDCO).

The workshop attracted fifty business owners, community members, and design professionals, who gathered at the Academy of Arts and Academics for the three-hour-long event. Design|Spring divided the participants into six teams, each of which was tasked with developing ideas to improve the pedestrian experience for two contiguous blocks. Design|Spring assigned a design professional to each team as a facilitator. The facilitator’s responsibilities included leading a tour of the assigned focus area and fostering a thought-provoking discussion about ways to transform Main Street.

Main Street, Springfield, OR (image from Discover Downtown Springfield)

Design|Spring’s introductory report for the charrette characterized downtown Springfield as having many great qualities but being in need of “a little rejuvenation.” The report noted that the width of Main Street’s roadway has increased over the years and as a result the space between the street curb and the building faces has diminished. The reduced sidewalk width requires creative solutions to make the streetscape more pedestrian-friendly and inviting.

Forty-nine buildings line the 200-700 blocks of Main Street. These building contain 65 individual storefronts, of which approximately 80% are occupied. Five of the buildings are on the historic registry. Some of the buildings are in disrepair while others have historical features masked by unsympathetic remodels.

A majority of the buildings are not owned by the businesses that occupy them. Because many of the buildings are paid for and lease rates are depressed, the owners lack incentives for investing in their properties. Consequently, the charrette guidelines explicitly favored low-cost, incremental solutions.

This charge forced the teams to come up with façade and streetscape improvements that businesses and property owners could implement at minimal expense. These included the predictable, such as freshening up facades by repainting them, adding planters, improving signage, creating pocket parks, enlarging storefront windows, and power-washing awnings and sidewalks. However, they also included ideas I hadn’t previously considered, such as granting façade easements to the City of Springfield (empowering the city to make changes to the privately owned building fronts) or forming a Main Street advocacy group that could work on behalf of all merchants to pool resources or represent them on matters of contention (such as uneven enforcement of the sign code by the City).

Natalie Dreyer of Design|Spring introduces the charrette

Most agreed that visible success will be a key to sustaining any revitalization effort.

Of course, numerous past and ongoing efforts have likewise attempted to identify paths toward rejuvenating Main Street.(1) Design|Spring’s charrette may not have broken new ground. Nevertheless, it was a worthwhile exercise.

Lana Sadler, AIA of Robertson/Sherwood/Architects presents the results of her team's efforts.

The value of a properly organized community charrette is in bringing together a diverse group of people to share a wide range of experiences and perspectives in the service of a common goal. The potential inherent in collaboration trumps that of individuals working in isolation. There’s no doubt the Downtown Springfield Design Charrette generated more meaningful ideas in a brief amount of time than would have otherwise been possible. This was also the first charrette for many of the participants and perhaps the first time they interacted with design professionals. The workshop was as much an exercise in community education as it was a brainstorming session.

Each charrette team posted its ideas on the wall.

The charrette also served as proving ground for the emerging professionals of Design|Spring. I offer my kudos to Natalie Dreyer, Jenni Rogers, and Mariko Blessing for spearheading the group’s effort. They demonstrated their ability to produce a successful and engaging community design event. They displayed bona fide leadership and can be proud of the outcome, even if changes to Main Street don't happen right away.

I'm looking foward to the prospect of future Design|Spring projects.

(1) Recent accomplishments include the City of Springfield’s Downtown District Plan and the Oregon Main Streets program.

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