Charrettes in Site Design and Land Use Regulation

Date: September 30, 2006

This article was reproduced with permission of the Maryland Bar Journal, originally published by the Maryland State Bar Association.

There is a relatively new planning and zoning tool gaining popularity in Maryland known as "charrettes". A charrette is a series of meetings involving the stakeholders and the charrette team.  Several Maryland jurisdictions have used charrettes in recent years for planning and zoning.  Howard County has used a charrette process in preparing a new Columbia Downtown Master Plan.  The Upper Rock District in Rockville was the focus of a week long charrette in 2004 and produced an attractive plan for the redevelopment of that site.  Other Maryland jurisdictions have used charrettes as well, including the Maryland National Park & Planning Commission and Baltimore County.

Contrary to traditional zoning and development principles which apply a rigid set of regulations to proposed development within a defined geographic area, charrettes use a different methodology to design a project uniquely from scratch, or almost from scratch.  In Maryland and elsewhere, charrettes have been used as a catalyst to permit a departure from restrictive zoning regulations which obstruct creative development.  This article examines the use of charrettes in Maryland and elsewhere as they have emerged over the past few years.

Background on Charrettes

In a traditional development approval process, such as those applicable in virtually every Maryland county, a developer designs a plan for a proposed development and presents it to the approval agencies for approval.  There are usually a series of meetings or hearings involved in the approval process.  Community groups and neighboring property owners usually have some small voice in the approval process, however usually, if a development proposal meets all technical and legal requirements of the approval agencies, development approval will be granted, even if the community groups oppose the project.

In most jurisdictions, such community groups have a right of appeal of these approvals, which can be lengthy and costly for all involved, including the developer who carries costs on the land during these appeals.  A charrette is a collaborative and consensus-building design methodology which includes input from all "stakeholders", including the developer, the relevant government agencies, and the community. 

A development designed through a charrette process takes a different path from one designed in the traditional manner.  Charrettes provide an interactive forum for site design.  Over a series of meetings which span at least a few days, a charrette team will help move stakeholders to consensus by considering the input of all involved in arriving at a development proposal.

At least one Maryland county formally has approved the use of charrettes in its zoning and development regulations.  As discussed more fully below, Baltimore County's Renaissance Redevelopment Pilot Program endorses the uses of charrettes for redevelopment of designated areas within the County.  Baltimore County's program even provides that a charrette site plan may depart from the traditional zoning regulations which would otherwise limit development on the site, without the need for "variances" or other special permissions.

A Typical Charrette Process

Although there are many different "models" of the charrette process (which tend to be proprietary in nature as they have been developed by design firms offering charrette services) a typical charrette proceeds in the following manner.  An interdisciplinary group of professionals is selected and hired by a developer or by the government agency responsible for the charrette.  This group, which will become known as the "charrette team," usually consists of architects, planners, traffic and environmental consultants, and a facilitator.  There may be other disciplines among the charrette team as well, such as preservationists, engineers, and economists.

The "stakeholders" will be identified by the charrette team, the developer or the government agency with responsibility for the charrette.  The stakeholders include the developer, the relevant government agencies (planning, public works, environmental, recreation and parks, community conservation, economic development, zoning and permits, etc.), and the members of the community which meet certain minimum criteria, such as residing within a certain distance from the property sought to be developed.        

All stakeholders will be given notice of the charrette and will be encouraged to participate.  There may be a public information meeting several weeks or months in advance of the actual charrette and the team will certainly take a site tour and collect detailed background information about the site prior to the commencement of the actual charrette.

Once these organizational tasks are completed, the charrette moves forward.  The charrette meetings occur in relatively quick succession over the course of at least several days or a week.  Each meeting has a specified purpose.  The goal is to arrive at a consensus on a proposed plan based on stakeholder input. 

The initial meeting is educational and visionary.  At this meeting, the facilitator will describe the charrette process and the tasks that lie ahead for the stakeholders and the charrette team.  The other members of the charrette team may provide other information at this meeting, such as site constraints.  The outcome of the charrette, which will be known as the final charrette plan, may be a vehicle to permit a departure from the constraints of the jurisdiction's zoning regulations, but the stakeholders may or may not be informed of the zoning restrictions on the property.

If the final charrette plan will be used to permit a development which departs from that which would otherwise be permitted under the zoning restrictions, it may very well be the case that the stakeholders would not be informed of the zoning restrictions otherwise applicable to the property, as these restrictions would be irrelevant to the preparation of the charrette plan.

The facilitator will explore the stakeholders' vision for the subject property at this first meeting.  For example, if the developer is pursuing a residential development, the stakeholders will be asked for feedback on the types of housing products they would envision for the area.  Single family detached dwellings?  Townhouses?  Apartments?  A combination of housing products?  How big might the homes be?  What type of architecture might they have?  What about lot and block size?  Open spaces and other recreational amenities within the development?  Street patterns and connections to other developments? 

Might it be appropriate to include a non-residential component within the proposed development, such as office or neighborhood-oriented convenience retail and services?  Are there any existing structures within the project area that should be preserved for historic or cultural reasons? 

The facilitator will also elicit the particularized goals and objectives of the stakeholders for the proposed project are also explored.  Is affordable housing a goal?  If so, how much?  What about senior housing?

The charrette team leaves the initial meeting with a directive to prepare at least one plan, if not several alternative plans, which derives from the vision, goals and objectives of the stakeholders.  These plans are prepared by the team behind the scenes and are presented at the second meeting of the stakeholders, where more input is taken from the public.  This input is used to refine the plans, and to create more detail on plan specifics where stakeholder consensus is forming. 

This process of using stakeholder input to prepare or refine a plan with the goal toward reaching consensus among the stakeholders is referred to as a "feedback loop."  Typically a charrette will have at least three feedback loops - the initial plan preparation plus at least two refinements based on stakeholder review and comment.

The developer and the relevant government agencies play large roles during the charrette as well.  The developer will have an opportunity to express his preferences, goals and objectives both initially and throughout the charrette.  The government agencies likewise are present to express their programmatic objectives as well, and to provide guidance to ensure that the charrette plan is otherwise consistent with the jurisdiction's regulations.

Stakeholder participation from the earliest stages of the charrette through the entire process via the opportunities for review and comment is important to the success of the charrette.  Stakeholders who have been involved throughout the process will understand the reasons that the charrette plan evolved about as it did.  The involvement of the interdisciplinary charrette team and the government representatives is important as well, since each iteration of the charrette plan will reflect the realities and practicalities of the disciplines represented on team, thereby reducing the need for rework caused by incomplete or inaccurate information.

The challenges of holding the charrette meetings in quick succession and over a finite period of time (4 to 7 days) encourages creative problem solving among the stakeholders and eliminates the opportunity for wasteful negotiating tactics by compressing the work schedule.

The final charrette plan, incorporating input from the feedback loops, is presented to the stakeholders at a final charrette meeting.  A final charrette plan for a project might consist of several documents, such as a site plan showing the types and location of the proposed buildings, the streets, the open spaces, the environmentally constrained areas, and other site particulars.

There may also be a "pattern book", which shows items like architecture, building materials, signage, use restrictions, and other design particulars.  Depending on the regulatory context in which the charrette is held, there may be a vote taken among the stakeholders, and "consensus" is achieved if the plan garners a pre-determined percentage of affirmative votes from the stakeholders.  Stakeholders must attend a pre-determined number of meetings to be eligible to cast a vote.

Once a consensus is achieved on a final charrette plan, the plan must be implemented, which may take weeks or months after the charrette is completed.  As noted earlier, depending on the context of the charrette in the jurisdiction's development process, the final charrette plan may become the basis for some type of official action which permits the approval of the final charrette plan.  For example, the stakeholders may approve a charrette plan which proposes residential development in excess of the residential density permitted by the underlying zoning of the property, or may propose a mixed-use development which is not otherwise permitted under the zoning regulations. 

Accordingly, depending on the jurisdiction's development regulations, the final charrette plan may be used to rezone the property in a manner which permits the proposed development.  Alternatively, through some type of official action, the charrette plan may become an overlay zoning district which permits only the precise development shown on the plan.

Case Study: Kingsley Park, Baltimore County.

Baltimore County passed its Renaissance Redevelopment Pilot Program in November 2004.  Through the use of a charrette methodology similar to that which is discussed above, this program is designed to facilitate the redevelopment of designated areas within the county.  The program acknowledges that existing zoning and development regulations discourage appropriate redevelopment of these areas.

The Kingsley Park project involved a dilapidated apartment complex on 18 acres in Essex / Middle River in the middle of an otherwise stable and well-established residential community.  The apartment complex had become a scar on the community.  Baltimore County, on its own initiative, took the project through the charrette process detailed in the zoning regulations.  The charrette was well attended by many people from the community.

 A final charrette plan was developed and consensus on the plan was reached (the plan needed an affirmative vote of 80 percent of the stakeholders, and actually received a unanimous vote).  A pattern book was prepared.  In accordance with the Renaissance Program, the Planning Board approved a regulation which permits the redevelopment of the site in accordance with the plan and the pattern book, despite that the final charrette plan failed to comply with the zoning regulations otherwise applicable to the site.

The approved final charrette plan proposes an innovative variety of housing types, including affordable senior housing (78 units), townhouses (43 units), and several distinct types of single family detached dwellings (73 units).  The approved plans and the pattern book include tremendous detail on architecture, landscaping, street design, lot size, and dwelling size. 

The approved plan also permits up to 4000 square feet of retail use in conjunction with the senior housing, which zoning would not otherwise permit at this site.  In fact, the approved charrette plan and pattern book provides relief from no fewer than 14 zoning regulations such as setback, parking, open space, sign, porch and deck, and design regulations.  In the traditional zoning context, it is unlikely that the developer could have obtained variances from all of these regulations.

In addition, the approved charrette plan provides relief from the adequate public facilities ordinance and public works standards.  The overall product is a very attractive well integrated mixed use site plan.  This charrette plan certainly could not be approved but for the relief provided by the Renaissance Redevelopment Program.  However, the community is invested in this plan through its participation in the charrette process and heartily supports the redevelopment of the site in the manner depicted in the approved plan.

Other Uses for Charrette in Maryland and Elsewhere

Even within the scope of land use and development, charrettes may be employed on a wide range of projects.  Although they seem particularly well suited for specific redevelopment projects, they may also be utilized for master planning, community planning, zoning and development code revision, affordable and senior housing projects, and even for individual building design. 

An emerging trend in zoning regulations is the so-called "form-based code", which inverts the focus of the traditional zoning regulations by looking first at building and site design and the context of the project within the greater community, and places less emphasis on a list of permissible uses.  Form-based zoning codes focus on the appearance and functionality of structures for an intended purpose such as pedestrian friendly communities at a human scale, or some other design objective.  Because such codes often seek to regulate form on a block by block or lot by lot basis, charrettes are very well suited for developing such regulations.


Whatever the project that a charrette might be used to design, whether a site plan for a development project or a master plan for a county, or something in between, a charrette-driven process can only be considered a big win for the community.  Communities, which typically have very little if any input on items such as site plans should welcome these opportunities to have influence.  Likewise, elected officials may find the opportunity to give a voice to these communities politically attractive.

Given the opportunity to participate in designing such projects, communities are likely to learn very quickly that it is not as easy as it looks.  Communities seem to have the impression that all developers' decisions are guided solely by maximizing design  - how many units?, how many square feet?, how tall?, does it really need that much parking?   However, anyone who has participated in such projects from a developer's prospective (in the case of site plans) or from a planning agency prospective (in the case of community plans or code revisions) knows that designing these projects is not just a matter of putting some lines on paper to maximize the design.  Many variables, well beyond financial variables, impact on the sustainability and feasibility of such projects  - attractive design, accessibility and scale.  This will be an education for these community groups.

Developers on the other hand, will likely see charrette-driven processes as something of a mixed bag.  Developers, who value their control over site design, will not be eager to give up that control to the uncertainty of the charrette.  Every project has certain required minimum yields in terms of units or square feet, below which the project is not feasible.  Developers rightfully will be reluctant to divulge such information, as these things tend to become ceilings rather than floors. 

Developers also will be hesitant to leave the realm where they have a range of uses and design options which are permitted by right (and for which development approval cannot rightfully be withheld), for one in which all aspects of the project are subject to the collective "wisdom" of the stakeholders.  Nonetheless, a well conceived charrette-driven program which provides relief from the rigidity of the traditional zoning framework to encourage innovative design will have certain attractive attributes for developers.  The ability to obtain relief from zoning and development regulations to permit creative design without the need for traditional "variances" surely will be attractive.  To the extent that a charrette produces a consumer driven plan, the developer will gain insight into what these potential consumers, and people like them, want.

Perhaps as charrettes become more widely used first by planning agencies and then by developers, and as communities learn the limitations of both the charrette and of project design, these stakeholders will develop an appreciation and trust for each other, which have not thrived to date.  The incentives for the community to participate in these charrettes seem to be in place.  However, to be successful, incentives must be provided to ensure the charrette-driven process is attractive for the developer as well.