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Beyond the Building
Working with communities across Connecticut, architecture students in the Urban Design Workshop learn that social, political, and economic considerations are just as important as aesthetics.

On a blustery Monday morning in May 2001, workers at Latex Foam Products Inc., a company that manufactures pillows and mattresses in Ansonia, Connecticut, noticed a fire in an oven used to dry the mattresses. Firefighters quickly doused the blaze, but no sooner had they piled up their hoses than they were called back to fight another fire that had been spotted on the roof. Within minutes, an inferno had erupted that sent flames shooting hundreds of feet into the air.

Fire companies from Ansonia and 12 surrounding towns battled the conflagration for five hours. When it was finally extinguished, the 10-acre factory complex was destroyed, 265 people were out of work, and the fate of the city’s second largest taxpayer was in grave doubt.

Mayor James Della Volpe tried desperately to keep Latex Foam in town, but in the end the owners decided to move to neighboring Shelton, which already had a building in move-in condition. “We put a lot of time and effort into keeping them here,” Della Volpe says. “When the final decision came, I was very disheartened.”

Della Volpe had a lot to be disheartened about. Latex Foam served as the southern gateway to a downtown whose glory days were long gone, even before the factory burned down. Add to that a severely eroded industrial base and an unemployment rate well above the state average, and the mayor knew it would take a lot more than seasonal banners and pots of geraniums to turn his city around.

William Purcell, president of the Greater Valley Chamber of Commerce, was equally concerned. Then he remembered a conversation he'd had about a group at Yale called the Urban Design Workshop, and he decided to make a call.

“We were under a lot of pressure to get something in there fast,” says Purcell, “but we didn’t want to rush into anything. We saw this as an opportunity to step back and see the big picture.” As it turns out, that is the UDW’s specialty. Composed of students and faculty from the Yale School of Architecture, the UDW helps cities and towns solve their urban design problems, often in collaboration with the School of Management, the law school, and other Yale professional schools.

The group was founded in 1993, when Alan Plattus, associate dean of the School of Architecture and co-director of the program, was asked to advise residents in the small industrial town of Winsted, Connecticut, on ways to revitalize their downtown. “That experience consolidated an idea in me that we needed a more permanent vehicle for urban design, particularly considering Yale’s commitment to do more in New Haven,” he says.

The timing was right. At both Yale and in Washington, there was tremendous support for urban development, Plattus says. In 1995, Yale received a $2.4 million HUD grant that enabled the UDW to focus on the Dwight Street neighborhood, adjacent to the campus.

The UDW, a quasi-independent firm operating out of a storefront on Chapel Street, charges communities modest fees for its services and does much work pro bono. Since its inception, it has developed projects around the state, including a streetscape beautification plan for Madison, a revitalization blueprint for a commercial strip in Hartford, highway underpass murals in East Lyme, and a major campus survey for Yale.

“Usually communities organize around something adversarial: drugs being sold on a street corner, prostitution, siting a group home for sex offenders,” Plattus says. “We try to go in and say, ‘What’s good about this place? What do you want?’”

That’s the hallmark of the UDW: asking, not telling. “We’re very good listeners,” says Michael Haverland, the UDW’s other co-director. “We see ourselves as partners with the people in the community we’re working with. We take the time to get to know them.”

This may seem obvious, but it’s not how it was always done. For many years, residents were simply told to stand aside and make way for the bulldozers. “Some really ugly architecture and brutal plans that destroyed neighborhoods were foisted on people,” Plattus says, “but eventually residents fought back, and architects and planners began to think it was appropriate to engage, rather than just dictate to local communities.”

At the heart of the UDW method is an event called a charrette, a three- or four-day workshop where all the gathered data, research, and community input is synthesized and presented to the people who will live with the plan that is ultimately selected. The term originated with a ritual at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris at the close of the 19th century. Students would place their entries for competition on a small cart, or charrette, and hop on board, feverishly putting the finishing touches on their pieces before the cart reached the exhibition hall. Since then, the term has come to mean work produced under extreme time pressure.

“It’s about shared authority,” says Haverland. “While we bring technical expertise to the table, the residents are the experts on the neighborhood and how they live and work.”

This type of “bottom-up” collaborative process, as Haverland calls it, was used successfully when the UDW was invited to help residents of the Dwight Street neighborhood sort out their needs and priorities. Haverland says months of meetings culminated in a three-day charrette in 1995 that was attended by the mayor and about 300 neighborhood residents.

“We had lots of conversations,” he said, “and not just about bricks and mortar and how to arrange them. We talked about economic development, education, housing, jobs, public transportation. These are the things that if present allow a neighborhood to flourish and, if absent, assure that it will fail.”

One of the chief conclusions to come out of this process was the need for an auditorium at the Timothy Dwight Elementary School that could also be used by the community. In May 2001, more than five years after the process began, the $2.7 million addition, funded with city, state, and HUD money, was built. “This is the most beautiful thing I’ve seen at Dwight,” said parent Bob Durham at the ribbon cutting. “It’s just a pleasure to be part of this school.”

That same year, the UDW and Haverland, who served as project designer, received four awards for their work on the school addition. But Haverland says the greatest compliment came from the community itself. While the addition was being built, Haverland visited the job site daily. Sometimes he would notice new graffiti on the existing school, but never on the addition. “That tells me the community feels invested in this project,” he says. “They’re protective of it.”

This isn’t how things seemed headed in the beginning. “We were very suspicious of Yale,” says Linda Townsend, Greater Dwight Development Corporation interim executive director. “A lot of us worried that they were coming into the neighborhood to take it over.”

The UDW does about 35 percent of its work in New Haven and 65 percent outside the city. Plattus says being from Yale is an asset in most of the state, but it can be a liability in New Haven. “People worry that Yale is in cahoots with the city to tear down their neighborhoods,” Plattus says. “We have to make it clear to our clients that we’re working for them.”

It took months of meetings and conversation, but in the Dwight Street neighborhood, at least, the message got through. “It was a good working relationship,” says Townsend. “Michael (Haverland) really tried to encourage us to come up with the ideas.” Haverland says the UDW is occasionally criticized for not being architecturally progressive enough, but he makes no apologies. “You can’t just go into a community and say, ‘Here’s the hottest idea in urban design, let’s try it!’” he says. “We’re dealing with real places and real people.”

The Dwight Street partnership was so successful that now the neighborhood is collaborating with the UDW to build a day care center down the road from the school. The New Haven Zoning Board of Appeals rejected the project once, but planners got another bite at the apple in February. Six days before the meeting, they gathered in the chilly UDW office to map out their strategy for persuading the board to grant them the necessary variances and special exceptions. The meeting was attended by a dozen people, including Plattus; two law students; their professor, Robert Solomon; and Townsend. Seated around a table with a box of doughnuts and a model of the project in front of them, the group had a free-wheeling conversation about what opposition they could expect and how to defuse it.

“Their single biggest concern seems to be that the parking area is too close to the playground. I can foresee that question coming up again,” Solomon told the group.

Townsend wanted to know how many parking spaces were required for the number of people who would be using the building, prompting Plattus to jump up and rummage around the cluttered book cases and work tables for a copy of the city’s planning and zoning regulations.

“How about if we provide some data on the shortage of on-site day care in the neighborhood?” a student offered. “We could invite the 'Y'. They’ve got a drawer full of people on a waiting list.”

The prep work paid off. After the meeting, the zoning board gave the day care center its all-important blessing, paving the way for the project to move forward.

This kind of on-the-job training is what draws about a dozen students a year to an extracurricular activity they know will be as demanding as any course they take.

“I came to New Haven just to go to grad school,” says Paul Aroughetti '01MArch, “but the Urban Design Workshop encouraged me to get into the neighborhoods and played a role in prompting me to stay.” Aroughetti, who is now an architecture intern at Cesar Pelli & Associates in New Haven, says his work with the UDW helped him realize there’s more for architects to consider than just the aesthetic features of a building. “It gave me a greater appreciation for the people using the buildings we design,” he said.

Ethan Cohen '95MArch says his involvement with UDW helped chart the course of his career. Today he does similar work as the director of the Community Design Center at City College in New York and is working on a project in the South Bronx that, he says, confronts many of the same issues as the Dwight School addition.

The experience students get in the UDW is an extremely useful supplement to their academic work, says Robert A. M. Stern, dean of the School of Architecture. “Outreach to real community groups is something one can only simulate in a tentative way within the confines of the curriculum,” says Stern. “The workshop is not a simulation, it’s the real thing.”

Nobody knows that better than the residents of Ansonia, who spent months helping the UDW gather information needed to develop recommendations for the ailing city. When the analysis was completed, the urban planners rejected the obvious solution of building a mall or bringing in a “big box” store like Home Depot or Wal-Mart. Instead, they focused on revitalizing the downtown by creating a pedestrian-friendly environment and revitalizing the area’s commercial and cultural vitality through streetscape improvements and the creation of an artists' colony along Main Street. Students and faculty also recommended subdividing the Latex Foam site and creating an office park that would house a diversity of economic activity, rather than one massive employer.

Della Volpe says city officials are already acting on some of the group’s ideas, including the artists' colony and a riverfront walkway leading to the train station.

At its purest, architecture is uncompromised by the mundane realities of budget and community input. It’s Frank Gehry getting a blank check to design the most aesthetically daring building he could conceive and coming up with the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Plattus says. But this is a scenario that rarely happens, and certainly not when it comes to urban planning at the municipal level.

“You have to be realistic about what the market will support and what a town is willing to do,” Plattus says. “Our job is to offer a level of aspiration that sets a framework that is flexible enough to provide a vision over time.” Planners strive to be helpful and productive “beyond the design of a building,” Haverland adds.

It’s a difficult lesson for architecture students, who are eager to see their visions actualized in bricks and mortar, but while the compromises, concessions, and community organizing can be frustrating, the realities of the endeavor are also what make it worth the effort.

Della Volpe credits the UDW with helping Ansonia residents feel good about their city again. “We were down and out, but we’re rebounding, “ he says. “We feel on the verge of turning the corner.”  the end


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