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A charrette: Creating a cultural arts district

Few people knew what was going on. A couple of months ago, Nov. 18, 2016, to be precise, Rochelle Noblett, executive director of the Madera County Arts Council (MCAC), led a walking tour of our downtown area.

Her entourage was composed of local business people, representatives of social and civic agencies, delegates from the arts council, and other key stakeholders. The purpose of the trek was to assess the current state of the area and imagine its future possibilities.

Those scenarios will be played out in a series of town-hall-type meetings, the first of which will be Thursday evening, beginning at 6:30 at the Madera South High School multipurpose cafeteria at Stadium Road and Pecan Avenue.

The aggregation, known as a charrette, will include numerous stakeholders in Madera. However, the term “charrette,” and perhaps the concept of it as well, may be unfamiliar to most of our population.

A charrette is a collaborative session in which a group of designers drafts a solution to a design problem. The term is common among architects, but is likely foreign to anyone outside of this artistic engineering circle. It developed from the French word for “cart” or “chariot” and emerged during the end of the 19th century at the École des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) in Paris. Once, it was a competition among students. At that time, teams of student architects would work feverishly on their projects, usually overnight, until a charrette (little cart) was wheeled among them to collect scale models of their work for review.

Eventually, the term evolved into its current use: brainstorming sessions among people who have a stake in the project. Charrettes are common among many architectural firms and several schools of architecture in the U.S, and they often emphasize cross-discipline cooperation and community involvement.

While the structures of charrettes vary, they often occur in multiple sessions in which a large group may divide into sub-groups, each sub-group tackling one aspect of an overall problem. Thursday night’s affair will be the first in a series of such meetings. During the next several months, all interested Maderans will have the opportunity to attend these sessions and add their ideas to the process of redeveloping the city center, which is the seat of county governance as well as the core of population between Merced and Fresno.

The germ of an idea Attempts to redevelop Madera’s downtown area are not new. The current effort probably started just before the turn of the millennium, when then-Supervisor Gail McIntyre, Chamber of Commerce president Debi Bray, and the late executive director of the Madera County Arts Council, Nancy Clute, attempted to lead a grass-roots social movement called CPR (Community Pride Renaissance). The initial meeting at Valley West Christian Center was attended well beyond expectations, but subsequent meetings tapered off. However, at one session, Tom Willey introduced the concept of Congressional Study Circles, and several of these groups succeeded the CPR movement.

In 2002, one group, which included Jim Taubert who was then executive director of the Madera Redevelopment Agency, met with Julie O’Kane, who was superintendent of the Madera Unified School District (MUSD), to discuss the possibility of building a Cultural Arts Center. A small feasibility study was conducted, but the data are a bit old, and eventually the state funding for redevelopment agencies was withdrawn. So, the plans were put on hold.

During the following few years, the study circles coalesced into charrette-style meetings that were facilitated by various agencies. The culmination of these efforts was the Madera 2025 strategy, developed under the leadership of the late Madera Police Chief Jerry Noblett, and that plan is currently used in assessing the need for and value of virtually all city projects.

The future today Continued concern for Madera’s future is clear in the development of the Madera Cultural Arts Planning Committee, a committee of the MCAC and led by O’Kane. She has been able to pull four area agencies into a partnership to address the problem of how to reinvigorate the county and prepare for Madera’s future population and economic growth.

MCAC, MUSD, the Madera City Council, and the county Board of Supervisors have all agreed to engage in a professional feasibility study for the development of a Cultural Arts Center to be considered for the area bounded by 3rd Street on the north, 8th Street on the south, Gateway Avenue on the east, and State Route 99 on the west.

In an unprecedented action, the representatives of all four agencies voted unanimously — and enthusiastically — for the plan. The city, county, and school district will jointly pay for the study, and the arts council will supply the project management team and administer the finances.

The architectural firm of Paul Halajian and Associates, which has considerable experience in similar redevelopment projects, was selected to plan the project, and specialists from the company will conduct the coming week’s charrette. The company’s urban planners are especially impressed with the active downtown business area and have suggested extending the redevelopment project to include the Yosemite corridor east of Gateway to Lake Street, with improved railroad-track crossings.

The urban-planning experts say that the pedestrian and vehicular traffic along the corridor will be a prime ingredient in the project’s success. Consequently, the concept of a Cultural Arts Center has expanded to a Cultural Arts District (please see Map B).

Just as those of us who were involved in CPR about 18 years ago did not know where our efforts would take us, the current committee cannot predict the future. However, we think the process will bring us to a positive outcome. The team at Paul Halajian and Associates wrote: “There are two separate yet complementary components to the project: a master plan for a segment of Madera’s downtown and the architectural design of a new Performing Arts Center. Buildings that support enhancement of the arts can often be a catalyst for change and economic growth in a community.”

That is certainly my hope.


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