Charrette, Charade… Tomato, Tomahto

Most normal people don’t know what a “charrette” is. They are lucky. As someone with the masochistic desire to participate in the future of my community I have been unfortunate enough to have seen this process firsthand. Just imagine watching sausage being made with B.S. as filler and you get the general idea.

The people that make their living as consultants use the term charrette as if it were synonymous with “organized meetings to solicit public participation and input on developmental goals”. But Dictionary.com doesn’t get paid to host charrettes and it defines them as “a final, intensive effort to finish a project, especially an architectural design project, before a deadline.” You decide for yourself which one is more objective.

In the ancient days of Alpharetta history, back in 2003 or 2004, our city council representatives used to solicit input from neighbors or the other parents at a ballgame when deciding the future of our city. But those were simple times and only served to make Alpharetta one of the greatest places in the state of Georgia to live.

Now when our city officials determine the future of Alpharetta they judiciously rely on input from “stakeholders” at charrettes. Of course neighbor input was free and successful but at least the city can usually get the North Fulton Community Improvement District, the Atlanta Regional Commission or some other group of people that live somewhere else to pay for it… as long as they get to pick the consultants and direct the work. So that’s just like free input from people that live in Alpharetta, right?

If you haven’t heard, the city of Alpharetta has been participating in an enormous effort to determine how to address our city’s future transportation needs. You didn’t know anything about the comprehensive transportation plan? You were probably too busy going to church or soccer games to attend charrettes. That’s why most charrettes are attended by consultants, politicians and “stakeholders” that don’t live in Alpharetta. It is part of their jobs or it affects them financially so they are obligated to skip soccer games to attend.

But one night I decided that I would take time away from my family, do my civic duty and attend a transportation charrette. It was an eye opening experience.

At the charrette I had the privilege of sitting at a table with a MARTA bus driver from Atlanta and a land use attorney. The land use attorney didn’t live in Alpharetta but she does sit on the board of directors for the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce and the State Roadway and Toll Authority. The SRTA Board is the group that voted to extend the tolls on GA 400.

There was also one other average Alpharetta voter at my table. There were also several other tables at the meeting and, based on the people I recognized and spoke to, each table seemed similarly composed. Not exactly a cross section of Alpharetta voters.

It was also interesting to see how the process was manipulated as consultants directed our input. The other person from Alpharetta and I were focused on road bottlenecks and widening the secondary roads that strangle traffic in Alpharetta. But the consultants specifically directed us to map out bike paths and bus routes, light rail corridors and such. Alternative methods of transportation weren’t a big concern for either of us but the format required them to be included so we did as we were told.

In addition to the push for alternate transportation modes there were two major projects introduced to our table by members of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce. The land use attorney pushed hard for a new exit off of GA 400 at McGinnis Ferry Road and the president of the North Fulton Chamber of Commerce came by to pitch his idea for a bridge over GA 400 in the Mansell Road area. Neither of the people from Alpharetta at my table cared anything about those two projects and it is likely they would actually increase traffic by allowing more high density development in the area. Yet I will be shocked if they aren’t in the final transportation plan.

All in all the charrette was a frustrating experience and I was disappointed in the manipulated results. But I was glad I went. I am not hopeful about the plans that will come out of the session but I hate to think what would have happened without the handful of Alpharetta residents that actually showed up.

5 thoughts on “Charrette, Charade… Tomato, Tomahto

  1. Ah, yes, my first foray into Alpharetta politics.

    The thing I remember most was being seated for a presentation with the first visual being a photoshopped GA 400 widened to 20 lanes, all totally gridlocked, of course. The rest of the presentation and table exercises felt similarly guided to a pre-conceived end.

    I was too naive to know or ask who was in my group at the time, though I now recognize that one was a former councilman. He stands out because he dominated our table’s discussion. I also remember several MARTA employees being there but can’t remember if one was in my group or not.

  2. I shouldn’t be one to talk because I’m the guy too busy with church and stuff to participate in meetings like this. But it occurred to me the other day… Alpharetta residents will come out of the woodwork to speak out against a mosque, but not for this stuff. Priorities a little out of whack, don’t ya think?

  3. Pingback: Roots in Alpharetta » Four Ways to Wreak Havoc on North Fulton Traffic

  4. A town in Scotland (Lochgelly) had a Charrette and all it seemed to achieve was to provide the local authority a chance to tick the ‘public consulted’ box. New plans were supposed to be presented to allow the community a chance to give input and all that the community got was the same old plans by the local authority with the added spin that the community was behind the plan

    Most of the local community is disappointed at the Charrette and feel our town has been screwed over for developer interests.

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