It's not every day when a group of city council members invites a builder's key project managers and land acquisition team out for cocktails and appetizers after a project approval meeting. But on Dec. 8, in Santa Paula, Calif., that's exactly what happened as both groups sought to celebrate the efforts of a unique three-year process that culminated that night in the approval of Centex Homes' Fagan Canyon project—the largest housing development in the town's history.
The council's 4-0 vote allows Centex to begin building 2,155 homes—325 of which will be affordable housing. Two elementary schools, 50 acres of parks, and 25,000 square feet of retail space are also included. But the road to approval was long and complex.
In November 2002, when Centex tied up 800 acres of developable land in the region, management instantly recognized that a “procedural” approach to this project would ensure failure. “We knew we would have to pause and get to know this community,” says Rick Bianchi, a Centex project manager. “We needed to take the time to put a face on this big name we carry and to ultimately become locally loved.”
Bianchi also recognized that there were limitations to the experience of the city council. “These folks are not professionals when it comes to shepherding a project of this nature.” In a process that was systematic and strategic, yet personal, Bianchi's team provided education in the form of workshops and meetings.
Directly trailing the series of workshops, Centex implemented a unique seven-day land-planning charrette designed to compress the long planning process into a productive, interactive period. More than 200 locals participated in the session's initial phase armed with topographic maps and pens. Immediately following their input, an on-site team of civil engineers, grading experts, land planners, graphic specialists, and landscape architects went to work, producing four unique plans within the first day. By the fifth night of give-and-take, the process resulted in a final plan that was ultimately tested.
“No one went home, and everyone was exhausted, but we were all honored to have been a part of such a healthy, productive process,” Bianchi recalls, although he admits the charrette was a little unsettling at the onset. “If you believe in this process and you commit to it, you have to do what the community wants.” But ultimately, Bianchi credits the charrette for the ultimate approval. “It helped us build the foundation we needed to weather the storms. When it came down to the horse-trading at the end, I had to say, ‘Look guys, when I committed to this charrette process, I turned my bag of tricks upside down,' because we agreed up-front to give them the things they said they needed.”
For more information on community planning and facilitation of charrettes, visit the National Charrette Institute site at www.charretteinstitute.org.