NORMAN — Urban design expert Dan Parolek says Norman has all the right ingredients for a vibrant “center city” that would connect downtown to Campus Corner and incorporate the residential neighborhoods in between.
Parolek and other urban designers are working with Norman residents this week to come up with a vision of what that vibrant environment could look like.
Norman has a unique “prairie style” architecture downtown and on Campus Corner, the University of Oklahoma campus and beautiful, older neighborhoods that all lend themselves to an overall center city design, he said.
“There’s a lot of brick buildings, of a certain shade of red, that kind of ground the architecture,” Parolek said. “It’s a regional type of architecture, but it has elements unique to Norman.”
Parolek is with the design firm Opticus of Berkeley, Calif. He is joined by designers Geoffrey Ferrell and Mary Madden, from the Washington, D.C.-based firm of Ferrell Madden, and Bill Lennertz, executive director of the National Charrette Institute in Portland, Ore.
The designers have set up shop this week in the LoveWorks building at 127 W Main St. They are participating in a weeklong charrette co-sponsored by the city and OU, aimed at coming up with a long-range design that residents can endorse for the downtown and Campus Corner business districts and the residential corridor that connects them.
Charrette is a French term for a high-speed, multiday intensive workshop in which professionals work with residents to look at design problems and come up with solutions, said city planner Susan Atkinson.
“It’s very much community-based. It’s built around what residents and property owners — the stakeholders — want to see happen,” Atkinson said.
Residents have turned out in droves to participate in the process. At an opening session, the LoveWorks space was “packed with people,” Atkinson said. Residents, property owners and business owners also drop by daily between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. to watch the designers work or participate in brainstorming sessions. A final public presentation is set for 6:30 to 9 p.m. Friday.
“The level of participation in this process, on a scale of one to 10, is a 10,” Ferrell said. “People here are very vocal and very energetic. We’re here to listen to them and take their ideas and turn them into a workable plan.”
The design team specializes in designs that revitalize “center cities,” often downtown business districts that have been neglected or core areas in cities that have fallen into disrepair.
“We believe in designing places where people want to be, where they can walk, bike, shop and live, all without leaving their neighborhoods,” Ferrell said. Additionally, they become neighborhoods or business districts that people want to visit or move to, he said.
“It’s about building healthy, sustainable communities,” said Lennertz, who travels the country to help effect changes in urban landscapes. The National Charrette Institute is a nonprofit dedicated to helping people create healthy community plans, he said.
Parolek said his firm specializes in actual designs while the Ferrell Madden firm specializes in developing zoning codes that allow the designs to come to fruition.
“It’s about creating zoning codes that allow for the best to happen in a community while preventing the worst or what people don’t want from happening,” Ferrell said.
“The charrette process brings us a fresh team of eyes to look at our city, to see opportunities we might not see. They do their research. They’ve studied this project area deeply before ever getting to this point. And they bring with them the knowledge of what other cities are doing,” Atkinson said.
The charrette process, because it is so interactive, also “provides an opportunity to bring people together quickly. The Norman community is really coming together and supporting this event with great enthusiasm,” she said.
Mayor Cindy Rosenthal said she is encouraged by how unifying the process has been.
“You’re seeing people sit down together who before have been at odds with each other. They’re discussing what they have in common, not what is divisive,” she said.
The dynamics of the charrette process have shifted people’s notions of the planning process, she said. “They realize they can be involved in it.”