Michigan’s Twin Cities Sustainable Harbor project guided by NCI Charrette Ready Workshop

The Twin Cities Harbor conservancy invited Michigan Sea Grant and others to assist the communities with next steps. Partners developed a process based on NCI's Charrette System.

Group works together during the 2018 Benton Harbor/St. Joe Design Charrette.

The Twin Cities Harbor is a unique place. Located in southwest Michigan, it is a deepwater port tucked between the cities of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph.

In its prime, the harbor bustled with ships transporting everything from fruits to industrial materials and petroleum throughout the Great Lakes and beyond. But, like many places once dominated by the boom of past industry and manufacturing, times are changing.

A 2015 study of the harbor found that while the Twin Cities Harbor has many assets, it is challenged by vacant land, empty buildings and underutilized waterfront opportunities. The Twin Cities Harbor is not unique in this regard; many Great Lakes harbors face similar circumstances.

In response to this, the Twin Cities Harbor conservancy invited Michigan Sea Grant, with support from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Office of the Great Lakes, the DNR Waterways Program and the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, to assist the communities with next steps.

Partners developed a process based on the National Charrette Institute’s NCI Charrette System. It specifically targets small harbor visioning projects, and has been used in communities throughout the state with success.

When the Office of the Great Lakes learned that community leaders in Benton Harbor, St. Joseph and surrounding townships were interested in reviving their shared harbor, they turned to NCI to help prime the communities for a wider engagement.

A 2015 study of the Harbor’s potential set the stage for further dialogue. The next step was to engage more community members to ensure that the vision included as much community representation as possible.

In early June, NCI Director Holly Madill led a diverse set of community stakeholders, including city, township and county officials and staff; regional planners; developers; business owners; and faith leaders, along with the project steering committee, in a 1.5-day Charrette Ready Workshop to assess and organize a joint visioning project for the harbor.

“The pre-charrette work that NCI guided us through created a real sense of ownership among harbor leaders about the process to engage the larger community, because they helped design it,” said Emily Finnell, chief strategist at the Office of the Great Lakes.

“Everyone also knows what to expect in the visioning process, and the workshop created some real excitement for moving into the charrette phase,” said Finnell.

The team’s work began with discussion about the harbor and past redevelopment and engagement initiatives. The group then explored high-level guiding principles and identified stakeholders important to developing the next vision.

At the end of workshop, partners produced defined goals, a project scope area and a charrette schedule that was implemented in fall 2018.

“Based on the work we did earlier this year with NCI to create the building blocks for the community charrette, we were confident and looking forward to implementing the process,” said John Egelhaaf, executive director of the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission and facilitator of the Harbor Conservancy, who is acting as the steering committee for the harbor visioning project.

“After the NCI preparatory work, the charrette team worked diligently with the residents to raise awareness and build anticipation for the three-day charrette event. It all fit together into a single, successful piece.”

The charrette began with a kick-off meeting on Sept. 19 and continued with the design charrette Oct. 9-11. With more than 200 people participating, outcomes included a renewed interest in continued joint planning and action for the harbor, as well as a deeper understanding of community concerns, which ranged from affordable housing to recreational opportunities to job creation.

Additionally, to ensure the process is representative of the community, the project team recognized that further community engagement efforts were needed to ensure the vision for the waterfront reflects perspectives from each community.

To foster greater engagement, the project team will be hosting additional community focus groups to obtain additional input during the winter and spring. The project team will also be hosting meetings with community leaders to discuss implementation strategies and governance structure to make the vision a reality.

The National Charrette Institute, the School of Planning, Design and Construction, and MSU Extension all played a role in the October charrette.

Madill from NCI returned to help facilitate the kick-off event on Oct. 9 and Rabia Faizan, an SPDC student, was invited to be part of the charrette design team. Then, MSU Extension’s Harmony Gmazel helped facilitate stakeholder meetings on Oct. 10.

For more information about the charrette and outcomes, visit St. Joseph-Benton Harbor 2018. To learn how NCI can set your team up for success, visit the RFP Co-Writing Workshop.

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