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REALTORS® Take Action: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

February 8, 2013

The village of Waterford’s downtown district has what some would call “good bones.” The Wisconsin village has lakes, rivers, green spaces and a well-traveled, state-maintained highway running through Main Street that makes the village of Waterford easily accessible.

But, as Mike VanderBunt, executive of the Lakes Area REALTORS® Association (LARA) notes, “it feels like an area that is not living up to its full potential.”

That’s not news to Village of Waterford Administrator Rebecca Ewald, who last year took advantage of an offer by the LARA to help a municipality in Walworth, Racine or Kenosha counties that wanted to redevelop or revitalize a downtown and adhere to smart growth principles.

The 590-member Lakes Area REALTORS® Association was offering to one lucky municipality a “photomorph,” or slide show of pictures that shows layer by layer, how planning decisions can impact an area.

The initial picture in the photomorph is of the existing space. The pictures that follow show how the space changes when certain design elements are added to the existing space, and the last picture in the photomorph shows the multi-layered effect of all the changes.

The photomorph helps bring to life the planning discussions so people can better visualize what sometimes can be complicated planning and zoning talk.

LARA couldn’t have made the offer at a better time for the village of Waterford, which had just convened an ad hoc Design Guideline Committee. The group was charged with making recommendations to the village of Waterford planning committee on what improvements should be made to SH 83/20, a two-lane highway that runs through the town.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation has targeted the road for a makeover in the next five to 10 years and the village wants to ensure that the DOT doesn’t focus its efforts on only laying more tar. Ewald said that Waterford wants to ensure that there are accommodations made for pedestrians and that the state takes smart growth principles into consideration when improving the road.

The goal, she said, is to make the area more pedestrian friendly and to improve the aesthetics of Main Street, which will ultimately draw more people to the area, which in turn will help economic development. Specific recommendations made by the ad hoc committee include enlarging sidewalks and narrowing the traffic lanes to focus on pedestrians.

The photomorph project LARA was offering was made possible, in part, by a $5,000 Smart Action grant awarded to the LARA by the National Association of REALTORS®. VanderBunt said LARA initially had planned to work with a developer who had a “beautifully designed mixed-use development that was a perfect example of smart growth.” The sour economy, though, sidelined the development.

“We decided that instead of canceling the photomorph idea we should reach out and see if there was a need,” VanderBunt said. 

And for that, Ewald is grateful.

“It is a brilliant tool,” she said, adding that in her 10 years as an administrator she had never seen anything like what LARA helped the village of Waterford produce.

Berkeley-based Urban Advantage worked with LARA on the village’s photomorph project. Urban Advantage founder Steve Price said he launched the company 14 years ago after serving on the city of El Cerrito planning commission.

Price says he remembers how the tone of a planning commission meeting would change when he would use photographs to try to illustrate a point. “I would talk until I was blue in the face,” he said, only half  joking. “The degree of tension in the room would instantly evaporate when people were given pictures to respond to.”

The 18-page village of Waterford Main Street photomorph reflects the decisions that were made by the ad hoc planning commission, but the proposals must still be approved by the planning commission and ultimately the seven member village board.

To that end LARA’s VanderBunt has been using the photomorph in presentations before the planning commission, the local chamber of commerce and even to a group of downtown business owners.

“This photo simulation is being taken very seriously,” he said. 

And now, so are the REALTORS®. 

VanderBunt said by working with the village of Waterford, LARA’s “visibility, credibility and trust” has increased.“

Unless you put yourself out there and build relationships, you’re not going to get recognized as an authority in areas like smart growth and economic development,” he said.

Ewald agrees that the photomorph has raised the REALTORS®’ profile in the community and in the planning department at the village of Waterford.

“It’s become clear to me that we should be working together on more projects together,” said Ewald. “Essentially, their (LARA’s) goals are the same goals we want to achieve.”