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Executive Q&A: Melissa Huggins Builds Community Through Planning, Outreach

By Karen Rivedal
The Wisconsin State Journal.

Trained as an urban planner, Melissa Huggins founded her Madison consulting firm Urban Assets on the principle that planning and development are “inherently collaborative” in a good project.

That means there aren’t any shortcuts in the development process worth taking if they shut out or silence important voices, inside or outside a project.

“The way a planner approaches a project, it will always have a stakeholder engagement component to it,” Huggins said. “A developer is under no obligation to do that, and some developers like to work in a vacuum. Then they unroll a project and say, ‘Ta Dah, this is what we want to build,’ without talking to anybody or consulting with the neighbors.”

Huggins used an inclusive approach when she was hired to help Domestic Abuse Intervention Services develop and open its new emergency shelter for women and children at a new location on the North Side of Madison. She took the lead in feeling out neighbors about the planned facility, which will open this summer at a cost of $5.6 million and, at 35,000 square feet, be seven times the size of the current DAIS shelter, which is 30 years old and cramped.

“You just never know how a community is going to react to that,” Huggins said. “So we went to every neighborhood organization on the North Side and met with them and said, ‘Here’s our plans. What do you think of them?’ And what happened is we ended up making very good friends who are very supportive of the project now. There was no opposition. I don’t know that that would have happened if we had just assumed everyone thought it would be a good idea.”

Raised in New York City, Huggins lived in Los Angeles for 10 years before moving to Madison in 1996 so her husband, Jack Opel, could earn a doctorate.

Huggins previously worked in planning in Madison for Meriter Hospital and for Vandewalle & Associates.

From an office on the seventh floor of the historic Churchill Building — Madison’s first high rise — on the Square, Huggins and her small staff offer consulting services including research and analysis, strategic guidance on project development, and project management from concept through implementation.

They work with nonprofits, municipalities and developers on a variety of projects focused around community development, planning and real estate.

Huggins also serves on the city of Madison’s Urban Design Commission and is a member of the board of directors of Downtown Madison Inc.

Q. Does reaching out to neighbors of a project and other stakeholders take a lot more time?

A. No, it’s an efficiency improvement. It avoids trouble down the road. That’s especially true in (neighborhood-dominant) Madison. But I believe you also end up with a better outcome. By listening to different voices, you make different decisions and end up with a better project. It might take a little longer, but not as long as if you made everybody mad and then had to back up and fix it.

Q. How do you find most of your clients?

A. It’s very much referrals and word of mouth. All of my good projects have come that way. I tend to avoid responding to Requests for Proposals, but I sometimes team with bigger national firms who come to me, so I become part of their proposal. In our most recent RFP, we will be working with Heartland Development Corp., which is doing housing for the homeless over on the East Side. They came to us to help them with the stakeholder engagement piece.

Q. What will that housing be like?

A. The CDA (Community Development Authority) of Madison has been pursuing it for a couple of years. It has to do with building what used to be called SROs: single-room occupancy housing. It’s like apartments. (Heartland) has done this in Milwaukee and Chicago and they have a pretty nice way of integrating amenities into their projects. This will be Madison’s first. It’s really combining the two things that I love to do, which is working with the community and building a facility that will meet the needs of that community. We’re reaching out to the homeless population and to homeless advocates and service providers, to try to make sure that the building, from the perspective of space planning and activities and amenities, meets the needs of the community. That information will then feed into the building’s architecture.

Q. What technical skills do you bring to the table?

A. I have knowledge and skills that are transferable across a number of disciplines — urban planning, facility planning and development, engaging the community, and real estate development. My technical skills include strategic thinking, knowledge of the complexity of urban redevelopment, management of the development process, engaging stakeholders in the planning and development process, project management and meeting facilitation, including large community meetings.

Q. Do you prefer a big development project with lots of impact or a smaller, more eclectic one?

A. I like to take on really challenging projects. What I’m really good at is when someone comes and says, “I really need to do X and I want to get there from here but I haven’t the faintest idea how to do it.” Just being able to have a vision for how to accomplish a complicated project and knowing what sort of infrastructure is needed, and identifying funding sources and putting together the program — those are the kinds of things I like to do.

Q. When you handle so many project aspects, is there a danger of leaving the client out of the loop?

A. No, because I’m not making the decisions. I can’t make decisions for an organization. I manage the process and bring to them at key points the decisions that need to be made. Communication is key.

Q. What’s been most challenging and most satisfying about the DAIS shelter project?

A. There’s always the unknown of the capital campaign. I have to keep the ball rolling (on) the facility planning (while another person) is out there doing the fundraising. Keeping those two things in sync, that’s hard. That’s why the project management team meets every other week to touch base. Then probably the most fulfilling part is to see the facilities that the current clients have and compare that to what they’re going to have. It’s going to blow their minds. It’s just going to be a beautiful facility.

Q. As an urban planner, what stands out to you about how Madison has grown and changed, for good or bad, in the past 20 years?

A. Since arriving in Madison in 1996 — when you could not get dinner after a movie if it was later than 9:30 p.m.! — I have watched the city grow from a lovely college town and capital to a vibrant, sophisticated city. As the Madison community has embraced more density, the vitality of uses, activities, and amenities has created the kind of city that people want to live in, from families and millennials to the rapidly retiring baby boomers to seniors. I believe Madison is on the right track, with one caveat: We must work hard to ensure that the city is welcoming and affordable to all.

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