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Nobody Loses in Amity Creek Charrette Process

Amity Creek; Photo taken by Chris J. Benson

Quick quiz! What is a charrette?

a. A fancy French wine
b. A party game
c. An intense session of design activity

If you answered "c," give yourself a prize.

Most people encounter the word "charrette" in the context of urban planning, where it refers to a focused effort to resolve community development challenges. Often municipal officials, developers, architects, and residents work into the wee hours of the morning over several days to arrive at an acceptable plan. If you don’t use it already, Minnesota Sea Grant wants to introduce this word into your vocabulary.

The noun "charrette" can also be used as a verb. If your friend says, "I am charretting," or "I am on charrette," they mean: "I am working long nights, intensively toward a deadline."

In April, Minnesota Sea Grant charretted with 40 members of the Northern Minnesota Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and others to plot a future for an area adjoining a portion of Amity Creek. Amity Creek is one of the designated trout streams in Duluth, but problems with excessive sediment have placed this stream on the state's impaired waters list. As part of a grant to celebrate the AIA's 150th anniversary, the chapter wanted to conduct a charrette where developers, landowners, community members, planners, designers, water quality specialists, and others could provide their input and ideas on how development could happen on land next to this creek, which runs into Lake Superior.

The charretters came to the table with four scenarios and one main question: Can this area be developed better than existing zoning allows?

Existing zoning suggests that the roughly 100-acres in question could be divvied up into about 36 home sites. The existing zoning, however, would not preserve the land along the creek, as the community indicated it desires. Fully developing the land under current zoning would add about 10 acres of roads, rooftops, and driveways (roughly equivalent to 4 city blocks). Current zoning also puts much of the development on the "far side" of the creek, where wastewater would be kept in septic systems rather than borne away by sewer lines. The heavy clay soils in this area raise concerns about possible septic system failure.

Final design scenario

This final design scenario suggests Duluth can:
  • Preserve the stream corridor
  • Provide value to landowners
  • Protect water quality in Amity Creek
  • Maintain the neighborhood’s connectivity to the natural areas along the creek
  • Create as much, or more, development as the existing zoning allows

The alternative scenarios concentrated development where city sewer lines are accessible. These alternatives were reviewed by landowners, neighborhood residents, water quality specialists, and others who described the aspects that they liked, their concerns, and ideas about developing the land. In true charrette fashion, the design team crafted this feedback into two new maps. These maps, along with the plot based on existing zoning, were again brought before the public for critique.

The next round of comments was compiled and spun into a final scenario to the best of the design team's ability. The final plan used conservation design techniques, namely protecting critical open spaces on the land (here, mainly wetlands), and incorporating traditional neighborhood layouts with smaller lot sizes and setbacks, and narrower streets.

The final scenario:

  • Accommodates 42 units in about 30 acres
  • Puts development on the side of the creek where existing infrastructure exists
  • Reduces impervious surface to 4.7 acres (less than half the impervious surface than existing zoning would create)
  • Protects the stream corridor, and
  • Maintains community access to the creek.

Nobody loses. The city is able to grow, the community maintains access to the stream corridor, and landowners retain the value of their land. In exchange for the increased development that the final charrette scenario allows, the county land department has agreed to seek protection for much of the undeveloped, tax forfeit lands along this section of Amity Creek. The city is discussing the final scenario with potential developers.

Many times, the building of new homes or businesses (a.k.a. "development") is associated with a decline in water quality. This association has its basis in research showing that increases in impervious surfaces, such as rooftops, roadways, and parking lots, leads to more sediment reaching streams. As water-repellant surfaces overlay absorbent earth, more sediment runs into streams, water temperatures become warmer, and streams receive larger volumes of runoff. The stream channel itself can even erode. Development is, however, a fact around this mighty lake. It's important to do it well, even if it means charretting into the wee hours of the morning.

Scenario Comparisons
# Lots Total Impervious Road Length per House Impervious Surface per Unit
Existing Zoning 36 10.4 acres 101 ft. 12,480 sq ft.
Final Scenario 42 4.7 acres 86 ft. 4,881 sq ft.

By Jesse Schomberg
August 2007

Return to August 2007 Seiche

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