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Get Ready to Plan

 

Albany: The Sustainable City. Sound far-fetched? Albany’s planning department hopes it won’t for long. And on Aug. 6 and 7, they, and a nationwide team of experts assembled specifically for Albany, want to hear from you about how it should happen. Yes, you.

Earlier this year, Albany won a grant to participate in the American Institute of Architects’ Sustainable Design Assessment Team program. In April, an AIA staffer and an invited expert, Alan Mallach, made an initial visit to Albany. Based on what they saw and heard on that visit, they assembled a team that so far includes an urban designer, a market specialist, an expert in community development, and an open-space/green-space person. They also plan to have a transportation planner and a community-visioning expert and/or green building architect.

This team, led by Mallach (who himself is a planner and an expert in housing and vacant properties) will be devoting all of their brainpower and considerable expertise on Albany during their upcoming three-day visit. But they won’t be doing it in isolation. Most of their time for the first two days will be spent in three public charettes. A charette is a very intense, focused work session used in the fields of architecture and planning, generally designed to get quickly to the heart of complex matters and generate potential solutions. When open to the public, they are considered one of the most serious and empowering methods for public involvement in planning and design.

“The time pressure-cooker [of a charette] is an incredible machine for generating ideas,” says Mallach. “The synergy is really amazing.” SDAT charettes often get people at the same table who’ve never met, let alone sat together as peers brainstorming solutions to common problems.

The role of the team members, says Mallach, will be to synthesize what they hear and turn it into a set of recommendations, which will be presented to the public on the evening of Aug. 8.

Sustainable design is admittedly a somewhat fuzzy term. Erin Simmons, the AIA SDAT staff member who visited Albany with Mallach, describes sustainability as planning for the future long-term, “generations and generations” out, and balancing “social, economic, and environmental” needs. Thinking like this has done wonders for come-back cities like Chattanooga. Of course, long-term planning is hard to achieve without stepping outside our day-to-day routine a little: That is one of the benefits of a charette.

Reginelli and Doug Melnick, the new director of Albany’s planning department, are considering the SDAT program to be “homework” for the city’s upcoming comprehensive plan, a way to get some expert advice and input to get the comp plan off on the right foot. Hopefully, says Melnick, the recommendations that the SDAT generates can be presented to the comprehensive plan board for possible formal adoption.

They are understandably excited about the process. Charettes are what planners live for. Here are two reasons why you should be excited too:

(1) They mean it about the public involvement. Nothing has been decided before hand. The charettes are not just opportunities for “feedback” on a plan that has been created and no one really wants to change. The public is being let in at the right point: at the beginning. We are also not only technically welcome, but actively being sought out. The College of Saint Rose has donated space for the meetings that is accessible by bus and with ample parking available. There will be food, and there are afternoon, evening, and morning charettes to accommodate different schedules. Reginelli is working on getting word about the charettes out everywhere from the radio to local churches—this is not being done official-legal-notice-of-a-public-hearing style.

(2) A basically neutral body is in charge. In a whirlwind series of charettes, with an outside team picked by the AIA, not by the city, there will be little chance for back-room conversations or over-influence by certain factions. And little motivation for it. Since this is a grant the city applied for, not a team hired by the city, the assembled team will have little incentive to do anything but call things as they see them. “We’re not part of City Hall, we’re not beholden to City Hall,” says Mallach. And though it should be, and will be, the people of Albany setting the agenda, the fresh perspective of outsiders might actually be a good thing to shake all of us out of our usual ruts and patterns.

This isn’t, of course, to say that the process will be magically free of politics. Mallach, who has participated in many of these AIA- sponsored programs, says that the teams are usually aware that any place has its competing political agendas, but that they make “a real effort to find out what’s going on underneath.” It has happened in past that a team didn’t recognize until too late the agendas that were driving what they were hearing, says Mallach, and in such a case, the results were not very useful. But that’s not common; more often the results give energy and focus to people trying to forge positive change. Nonetheless, this is yet another reason that it’s essential that a wide range of people come out and participate.

With enough buy-in and momentum, this could be the catalyst for a bold new step forward for Albany. Will you be a part of it?

—Miriam Axel-Lute

www.mjoy.org

The SDAT charettes will take plan on Aug. 6, 1:30–5 and 6–7 PM and Aug. 7, 9 AM–noon. A more general town-hall meeting with a Q&A format will take place Aug. 6, 7–9 PM. The team will present their recommendations on Aug. 8, 5–7 PM. Kids are welcome. All events will take place at the College of Saint Rose. For details about location, parking, etc., call 434-2532 ext. 16, or visit albanysdat.com. Also check http://metroland.typepad.com/the_big_questions/.

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