Categorized | opinion

Critique: Tower District Streetscape Design Charrette

bikes smHank Delcore, Ph.D., and Kiel Famellos-Schmidt
also found at

Saturday from 10am to 2pm, about a hundred Tower District residents and business owners gathered for a design charrette put on by the City of Fresno planning department and MW Steele Group. Steele has the contract for planning a redesigned Tower District streetscape as part of the Tower District Specific Plan. Saturday’s event was a day of community input, with Steele returning this Tuesday night to present some design alternatives.

Blong smWe laud City Councilman Blong Xiong, the city, various Tower District advocates, and the Steele Group for putting on this event. Mark Steele and his team listened, took some hard questions, and were willing to engage in some good give and take.

As professionals in participatory design and community design methods, we also noted some things about the program that can inhibit the quality of community input and seriously limit the degree of real community participation in the design process. This critique is intended to increase the quality of design charrettes and community input in Fresno as well as raise awareness about the potential of participatory design.

Expert focus of the event
mark 2smThe organizers stated that the day was all about the participants, but in practice, the more consistent emphasis was on the expert status of the architects/planners vis a vis the participants. After an introductory presentation on the distinctiveness of the Tower by two long-time Tower advocates, Mark Steele took the stage and talked mostly about his firm and their approach to the project. He presented his goals for the project, despite acknowledging that the day was about understanding our goals and aspirations. His associate, Diego Velasco, followed with the firm’s views of the strengths and challenges of the Tower District – again, topics that the charrette was supposed to probe. Expert statements are not the best way to begin an event meant to foster community participation in the planning and design process.

table 12smIt wasn’t until 11:15am that the twelve tables of participants were unleashed on the first design drill. By that time, some participants had already turned their attention away from the stage and were fingering the maps, stickers and other supplies on the tables. An hour is too long for facilitators to dominate the stage at a four hour event. The long lead-in both cut down the time for participants by a quarter, and set a strong expert-focused – not participant-focused – tone.

The tower district is a very diverse place. It is called home by many including: African American, Asian, Caucasian, Latino, young and old, the progressive community, and the GBLTQ community. Economically, there is a mix of home owners and renters, working class through upper class and even homeless. As well, Tower is a destination for those throughout Fresno and beyond in search of unique cultural, entertainment and dining experiences.

The participants at the charrette were overwhelmingly white and weighted toward local property and business owners; the average age looked to be about 50. Conspicuously absent were youths and Latinos, two large and important resident/user groups in the Tower. Tower visitors from other neighborhoods were also missing. Those who attended are important, but they are already the most likely people to have their voices and preferences heard in this process, and they have a partial view of issues at stake in the streetscape. For example, there were probably relatively fewer public transportation users among the participants than some other Tower constituencies, an important point when it comes to redesigning bus stops and associated features like sidewalks and bike racks.

Jay presents table 11's results for Design Drill B: Mapping the Tower Existing Conditions

Jay presents results of Design Drill B: Mapping the Tower Existing Conditions for table 11

Tight format, short time
For each design drill, the participants had 15 minutes to work through complex issues, like recommending placement of street furniture and other features all across the Tower District business core. Each exercise time was followed by 30 minutes of often repetitive presentations from each table to the entire group. The design charrette had us wrestling with important and potentially highly creative design issues, but the format was too tight.

Constrained approach to community participation
Finally, with the design alternatives meeting coming up Tuesday, we wonder how much of Saturday’s charrette can really be incorporated into the process. Again, we agree that Mark Steele and his colleagues (and by extension the city) are sincerely trying to listen. But it’s hard to believe that Steele and company didn’t already have some designs in mind or drawn up before the charrette. If not, then they would have to work day and night from Saturday afternoon till Tuesday night to synthesize ideas from a hundred participants and come up with some design alternative to present – and even then, this time frame is probably too tight. Surely they are working with the charrette data right now, but they also probably had some designs already laid on and ready for their return to Fresno Tuesday night. This raises the question: how much community input can really be incorporated when the goals, strengths, challenges and preliminary design work have all already been done before the community is consulted? (In fairness, Mark has said that the design alternatives they will present Tuesday night will not be very detailed; we’re sincerely curious about the firm’s process for analyzing charrette data and incorporating it into their designs.)

What We Would Do
In our experience, facilitating dozens of participatory design charrettes, as well as observation of other charrettes and research of best practices, here’s how a truly participatory design charrette might look:

Participant focus
At one point Saturday, Mark Steele said, “today we’re gonna make you into streetscape designers.” In other words, the experts were ready to teach us how to do something of what they do. But a community design event shouldn’t be about transferring knowledge about design practice from experts to community members. Instead, we start from the principle that everyone is a designer already, without expert help. In other words, we all have design ideas and practices related to our surroundings, including our streetscapes. A community design charrette should be aimed at unlocking the design insights we already have (or could have, in the right context), and making those insights available to professional designers. Professional designers apply their experience and expertise to produce the actual design, inspired by community input.

In practice, a participant focus means that you deemphasize the role of expert or facilitator. No long and potentially intimidating statements of who has what degree or affiliation or expertise; instead, you dive right into the participatory design exercises and maximize the time that the participants have at center stage.

Recruitment means diversity
If you open the event up to “concerned citizens and business owners,” you tend to get a self-selected group of the usual suspects, as we saw on Saturday. Instead, we recommend targeted recruitment among all user groups to ensure a diversity of participants in the design process. This of course takes more work upfront in recruiting and screening. The result is much more useful data that can more accurately influence the design process.

Loosen up the format, take your time
Getting true participation takes time and flexibility. We would have recommended a series of three participatory design charrettes, with smaller yet more diverse participants, and more creative exercises involving, perhaps, larger scale prototyping and methods drawn from theatre and the arts — this is after all the Tower! (Diego said that they considered a skit-making exercise but time constraints precluded it.) Participants could act out common Tower interactions with streetscape props. Examples we bounced around included: the bus stop, the sidewalk café, the tower rat hangout, bar hopping, Rogue, etc. This would give the designers data about our culture and spatial needs. Using audio and visual recording, can capture both the data and the process through which it was produced for later analysis.

Another method we thought would be useful is to have different tables focus on different areas of the project area. With twelve tables of participants at the event all focused on the same design drills never more focused than the entire project area, a lot of redundant results were produced. The area is easily broken into six overlapping parts. Each area is then worked on by two tables. This would get all of the project area equal focus. At Hank’s table and the three tables Kiel facilitated, we noticed input was light at the edges. Also at the 1”=30’ scale aerial photo that was the last of the design drills, it was hard to definitively place streetscape elements and furniture represented by stickers in our tool pallet that included: sidewalk cafes, potted plants, streetlights, handicap ramps, benches, bike racks, etc.

Some of these measures would increase costs at the event level. However, we have Fresno-area expertise to accomplish participatory design and planning work and the savings from keeping the work local would more than pay for the changes we suggest.

True participation
Let’s face it, whenever we create something, we become wedded to it: we want to defend it, sometimes not even consciously. From talking with Mark, and Diego, observing how the community was prompted, and the tight timeline, it seems much of the design is already in place. Community consultation should take place before any designer digs into a project or puts pencil to paper.

While we value and honor the expertise of MW Steele Group and the work done by the City of Fresno and the Tower community, this is our honest assessment of the design charrette process and how it could be improved upon. Please attend the next meeting Tuesday, July 28th 7-9pm at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theatre, where the design alternatives will be presented.

Related posts
Tower District Streetscape Plan
Q & A with Diego Velasco
Tower District Streetscape charrette video
Bored in Fresno? Become an Anthropologist
ArcHop Construction Proceeds

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kiel - who has written 140 posts on archop.

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16 Responses to “Critique: Tower District Streetscape Design Charrette”

  1. bradley says:

    x-posted to

    While I agree with most of the criticism expressed here, I do sense a tone which speaks to a frustration with the continuing practice of going out-of-market for expertise that exists here at home.

    I feel the crux of this critique boils down to two key areas (Please excuse the over-simplification, the article stands on its own):

    - horn tootin’
    - restriction of participation

    >>Re: horn tootin’
    It was not MW Steele’s fault they are from San Diego. Walking into a forum as well-attended as the TDSDC put them on the spot to demonstrate they deserved to be there. The critique is written from the perspective of professionals in the field, but very few of your peers were in the audience, and I think they felt the need to try to “bring home” their involvement in the project. For my part, I was interested in their philosophy and liked learning about the firm.

    The reprise of Dan Zack’s Tower District presentation was unnecessary in my eyes as well, but I understand the intent of the presenters — to frame a spirit of community pride from which to spring into the design exercises.

    >>Re: restriction of participation
    Again, I agree with the heart of your critique in this area, but I think you were a bit hard in the assessment. I feel the time compression was mostly the result of allowing table-by-table summation to not have any moderation. At the very least an hour could have been reclaimed had this aspect been handled better. I do believe the spirit of participation was genuinely anticipated, but the participants were allowed to control the pace more than the input, and that ate into valuable time more than anything else.

    The second part of my response to this topic regards the demographics of the attendees. I take the most issue with the critique on this point because canvassing neighborhoods for participation is labor intensive and difficult work. Outreach to youth and to those without a financial investment in the proceedings is difficult at best, and damn near impossible without a bevy of volunteers. Every address received notice written in a friendly, approachable manner, online awareness was high, physical postings were abundant. Even so, I felt mass transit issues and youth-oriented concerns were aired and discussed and broadly deemed important. Yes the process would have benefited had there been a broader demographic in attendance, but I don’t think many shared concerns were left out of the discussion.

    Blogs such as this one and are doing a great job of raising the profile of local talent in the areas of architecture and planning. I also feel it is essential to look to home for leadership in community improvement projects. I also believe criticism is essential to improve processes and should not pander to the status quo. It is in this spirit that i critique your critique; an effort to further contribute to the discussion and to foster a spirit of excellence and trust in our own community.

    - Bradley Fitzhenry

  2. Sarah says:

    I agree with the idea that it will take more than one “public” meeting to explore design opinions among the people that the changes will actually affect. Thanks for the candid review of the session.

  3. Leo says:

    I was unable to attend the charrette. We are residents of the Tower District and we received the notice of the charrette the week it was held.

    It seems there is a need for a way to bridge the gap between the residents of the Tower District and the design process. Either by ballot, internet video conferenceing or some other manor.

    I agree with the summary, at least the general sentiment conveyed, for the most part. I tend to prefer conducting business with other local businesses for business and personal needs.

    What I see as the method for getting what the residents want and implemented is for the residents and the city to decide what is needed in specific before a design team is selected. The residents and the city form the punch list, puzzle pieces and problems to be solved. Then form a proper business proposal for what is to be built and the parameters that need to be met for it’s construction. It’s this proposal that needs to be bid on for best design solution and cost efficiency. I do not know how Steele was selected, but I do hope that it was by some bid and award process. Fresno has a history of buddy buddy business/politics types dealings and I’d hate to see that perpetuate to any degree.

    Does City of Fresno have an Architect? Did they attend? Does City of Fresno have an Engineer? Were they in attendance? Without attending myself it’s hard for me to say how much the Design Team is designing what they want, what the Tower Residents want or even the City of Fresno wants. I can say that I think these meetings should be about the Design Team getting the ok for their idea on a solution for the problem they were given to solve. Seems like the Design Team had a big hand in saying what the problems are that need to be addressed. This method that seems to be playing out does not seem to be the most effective for addressing what the community wants. I do understand what City of Fresno and the Design Team are trying to do in including the residents in the design process. It seems though, that the city and the residents need to form a stronger team themselves and then solicit the Designers help.

    I have to say I form my opinion based on the account I read and some personal experience with the City of Fresno.

  4. kiel says:

    Thanks for the criticism it is well justified.

    The horn tootin’ was something we considered editting out. But we felt it was more important to present our honest opinions, especially since our opinion was in large part formed by our experience with charrettes. Admittedly our experience is eclipsed by that of Mark Steele. He is well respected in his field and I find it an honor to spend Friday evening walking the streets of Tower with Mark, Diego and the other table facilitators. As well as to watch them in practice at the charrette. In reviewing his work I hope to contribute to a stronger design that is beneficial to all Tower visitors and residents.

    Regarding the diversity, a few participatants mentioning youth or socioeconomic groups not present is not the same as the input of those groups being engaged in the process. The fact is that space is used different by different groups. A few hours of canvassing the neighborhood and screening participants, could have yielded valuable results and given the design team a much more intimate understanding of the neighborhood.

    While I don’t want to be a broken record of “local, local, local” but I can’t help but imagine that the fee MW Steele had to expend in traveling to and from San Diego (an 11 hour round trip drive at best, a drive they will do at least 4 times) could have been better spent on additional recruiting and workshops. That would undoubtedly contribute a better more inclusive design.

  5. Jay Parks says:

    I had a lot of the same criticisms as Hank and Kiel. One gentleman at my table on Saturday told me this was his third or fourth “community meeting” (his words) about street development over the past several years. None of the plans were ever acted upon. Obviously, there are City money restraints which prevent the implementation of a complete streetscape plan like the one we worked on last Saturday. But a repeated process of planning that devolves into inaction, and neccessitates more planning down the road, seems like an avoidable pitfall.

    This disconnect, rather than the moderation and/or supervision of the charette process is what I think we ought to be addressing. The woman from the city who spoke certainly addressed the issue without gloss.

    I would rather design/plan for what is possible within a realistic timeframe than play fantasy city planner, which (although fun and entertaining) seemed to be the goal of Saturday’s session.

    Thanks for your comments!

    –Jay Parks

  6. Suzanne says:

    As a Tower District/Fresno High resident, I was not informed about the charrette except through social media only days before the events. I was disappointed that I was not able to attend charrette, and that I will not be able to attend the design presentation either.

    If it’s possible to offer input after the fact, I would like to throw out the idea of adding art while adding bike racks — much like what was done in Louisville.

    I was thrilled to hear that so many of my neighbors did participate, and hope that the outcomes only help to improve our lil’ gem of a neighborhood.


  7. Jay Parks says:

    Suzanne – bike racks and community art were two of the most mentioned elements last Saturday.

  8. flo says:

    good food for thought….i agree with you that the tower pop. was not well represented, especially from the latino community. a bilingual invite, or possibly a spanish speaking session should have been administered. possibly a separate one for the youth/teens as well, so it would empower them to help take care of the neighborhood. i have mixed feelings about the architect, and i thought they were good facilitators…but like kiel, i think this whole process could have been a lot more efficient and effective with a LOCAL architect. it is obvious they are trying to do too much in two sessions, whereas a local architect could have not only organized, but also participated in more community meetings and be more accessible if they were based/present in the community!

  9. k says:

    If you want to redo a street that needs redoing, why aren’t you looking at Belmont Ave, halfway between Downtown and the Tower?

  10. Jay Parks says:

    K: great question. To play devil’s advocate, how about this for an answer: because Olive Ave. is the street people USE?

  11. kiel says:

    Jay, To play devil’s advocate on your devil’s advocate: Why redesign, rip up and disturb business where there is already activity? Why not improve Olive west of Echo? Fulton south of Alhambra or Dennent has good bones but needs investment.

    The main core of Tower will go on esisting as is. But by extending that vibrancy, more businesses will locate in Tower, existing businesses will improve. Tower then could have a stronger connection/entry from major corridors like Palm and Blackstone.

    Belmont is in need of major attention. Maybe archop park and the City’s new focus on the Lowell neighborhood can meet that need.

  12. Scott says:


    Thanks for all the work you do keeping our community focused on design. I see your name everywhere and know you are putting in a lot of unpaid hours for the common good.

    I am one of the “usual suspects” you mentioned. I have been to countless hours of similar meetings over the past 20 years. I’m not complaining per se- I love the neighborhood like a family member, and it’s great to see people engage and get excited. Occasionally, something even gets done.

    I attended the charrette on Saturday and share your concerns regarding community input- particularly that the time between meetings seems to indicate the designs were done before the charrette. I will make a cynical prediction that when the options are presented, there will be one overwhelming winner and two that are weak. We vote and bingo, instant community agreement. I still think it’s great if it’s a step that leads to real improvement of the neighborhood. Also, the Steele group seems to be a pretty experienced design team. Chances are the design will be cool anyway.

    How much are they being paid?

    In any case, I think the number of people who showed up, and the countless others who post and follow on sites like this one, give us all something to be proud of and optimistic about.

  13. Michael says:

    I was there and I agree that the process was bogged down more than a bit by lax management of redundancies in reporting table output.

    Regarding the overall process, though, I disagree with your assumption that the outcomes would have been better or even different if there were more emphasis on the participants as designers as opposed to allowing the experts to frame and guide the process. After all, they are the experts. At my table, there were 3 older folks and 3 (much) younger ones. While we were all enthusiastically involved in the process, it was clear from the outset that none of us had the expertise to have applied enough intense, critical pre-study of the existing target area to have been able to effectively “re-design” the streetscape. In fact, even with guidance, some of us had trouble with the parameters of the task. The tight structure, however, helped us to navigate through the process.

    With regard to the consultants coming to the table with their own ideas. Why not? They are familiar with the Tower, and I assume (in accordance with their duties as consultants) that they have studied it with some intensity. It would be difficult, I think, to filter out their experiences, training and expertise in design when actually leading a design task.

    So, while I agree with much of your criticism, I don’t believe that the tight structure or the level of community participation was a hindrance to the overall process. And, while I think the consultants may very well come tonight with plans that incorporate some pre-determined ideas, I don’t necessarily view that in a negative way as long as everyone agrees that the ideas work well and represent what we want.


  14. Arnie Kriegbaum says:

    I am in Reedley, so I comment only as a nearly daily Fresno visitor and not as a resident. My comment is to applaud the high level of interest in this whole process. Many people were at the meeting – GOOD! Many comments and concerns about the process of change – GOOD! What I see is a lot of people that care.

  15. Crisco says:

    Big critique: the REAL reason for the “streetscape plan” kind of slipped in there at the end of the Tower District Streetscape Design Charrette Tuesday, 28 July 2009: the sewer system running beneath Olive will be replaced! My experience running charrettes and similar public involvement during my years in grad school and my professional internships as an Urban Planner, as well as basic Professional Planning Ethics suggest that this little detail probably should have been disclosed at the very beginning of this process. My professional experience in stormwater, sewer systems, in the business offices of city/county governments, as a regulatory agent in another state & region of the country, and as a planner working in transportation here in my hometown of Fresberg, leads me to suspect that this Sewer system replacement (upgrade?) along Olive Avenue could be one hell of a rough ride for our beloved Tower District. I hope I am completely wrong, but I worry that what the Tower Community will be left with is a mess, with mere tokens from the City of Fresno and its profit-focused contractors when it’s all said and done. Other bloggers asked why it is that Olive was chosen for this Streetscape Plan (or is it Sewer work – maybe I’m confused…)? Based on my experience as a contractor for the electrical utilities, it may be as simple as this: dealing with the “power poles” that run along Belmont would require the City and their Sewer Contractor(s) to coordinate with electrical and various telecommunications corporations that “own” these lines – a very convoluted process at best… Olive is an attractive option to replace/upgrade the sewer system in this part of the city because of something it is missing: power lines do not run along Olive within the heart of the Tower… How this was missed in the Streetscape Design process may not be nefarious at all: few understand how utilities like electrical and sewerage systems function, and usually less about how they dictate community design. Ideally, it takes all of the ekistic arts (interior design, architecture, engineering, landscape and planning) working together – informed directly and organically by the community they serve – to develop comprehensive alternatives in infrastructure plans that ultimately enhance its intrinsic value. Do I think the Streetscape Design process could do this? Possibly… except for that nagging little detail about the REAL Big project coming to a Tower District near and dear to its Community at large… pun intended ; )


  1. WTF or FTW: Roundabouts in the Tower District…

    Tower District resident and business owners have begun gathering this week to discuss a new streetscape plan for the beloved Fresno neighborhood. The first meeting was held on Saturday and is critiqued nicely at ArcHop. A second meeting was……

AIA San Joaquin