Facilitating a Visioning Process for a New Village Center in Durham, NH

CBI facilitates a visioning process to collaboratively create a new design plan for Durham, NH, which receives public support, complies with necessary standards, and wins the New Hampshire Planner’s Association “Plan of the Year” award. 

Background and Challenges

Unlike many college towns, Durham, NH lacks a recognizable and thriving town center.  Prompted by local officials’ hopes to revitalize Durham with a new “village center,” Mill Plaza owner John Pinto invited the town to “develop its vision for the future” of his central downtown property. The Town Council formed the multi-stakeholder Mill Plaza Study Committee (MPSC) to develop a conceptual plan that would enhance the local tax base and link the surrounding business district, college campus, residential neighborhoods, and brook-side green space. The Committee received a grant from the New Hampshire Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIANH) as part of the AIA’s 150th anniversary “Blueprint for America” initiative. The AIA 150 team was interested in Durham as a model for a different — and better — way to engage communities in design and permitting processes.

The AIA selected CBI to facilitate the MPSC and AIA 150 teams in creating a conceptual design plan that the owner could shape into a successful, publicly supported permit application.

The CBI Approach

CBI helps the design teams set ground rules for their collaboration; facilitates a series of meetings involving extensive public engagement; and helps the team narrow their ideas into a conceptual plan.

CBI helped the AIA and MPCC team create guidelines for their consensus-based partnership, including standards of transparency related to members’ personal interests in the redevelopment. CBI also helped them structure their work with a formal Work Plan. With these ground rules in place, CBI led bi-monthly meetings for 12 months, while a coordinating committee held additional meetings to set agendas, prepare drafts of documents, and work with the AIA design teams. CBI built significant public engagement into the process, in the form of open committee meetings; an on-line comment space; focus groups; a site walk-through; televised public meetings; and multiple public forums and design workshops. CBI gathered additional input through outreach to private stakeholders.

After compiling community and expert input into a Vision Statement, a Data Report, a set of design parameters, and stakeholder interest analysis that were tied to AIA and LEED standards, the design teams presented preliminary designs to the community at three rounds of public workshops. After each round, the MPSC/AIA150 team met to review the public feedback and set revised design parameters for the next round. The last intensive design consultation (known as a charette) combined the three teams’ previous work into a single “hybrid” design.

CBI helped the Committee build consensus around their report to the Town Council. Before drafting the report, the CBI facilitator and a small group of committee members met with the owner and potential developer to discuss the MPSC/AIA150 team’s work. After the owner and developers showed some hesitation about the design — their design expertise was related to renovating strip malls, not transforming strip malls into vibrant community space — Committee members opted to make strong recommendations and suggest the possibility of reconstituting the Committee for further collaboration with the owner.

Results

The committee creates a final hybrid design that receives community backing, wins the “Plan of the Year” award from the New Hampshire Planners’ Association, and complies with AIA and LEED standards.

The transparent and inclusive process led to significant community support and involvement, and resulted in a Final Report featuring seven recommendations for the new “village center,” including a final “hybrid” design that had already received a positive response from the community. The Committee’s vision for a pedestrian-friendly downtown would allow residents to park in hidden lots within the development and walk to the grocery store, small shops, river path, campus, residences, new library, or civic buildings. The plan also incorporated “LEED for Neighborhood Development” green building standards (LEED-ND), the AIA 2030 Carbon Neutral Criteria, protection for College Brook, and the AIA Living Communities principles.

In May 2008, the New Hampshire Planners Association deemed MPSC’s plan the “2008 Plan of the Year” for its design-based approach to integrating the existing strip mall into a revitalized downtown Durham. Though the town’s original goal was to break ground in 2009, economic conditions have delayed the project until greater funding is available.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons/dougkerr