Architecture and urban planning students aid Detroit neighborhoods

December 11, 2006

EDITORS AND NEWS DIRECTORS: Photos of Detroit’s Historic Norris House are available. Students are working in Detroit at various times. Call (313) 747-4418 to schedule tapings.

ANN ARBOR—Dozens of students from the University of Michigan’s College of Architecture and Urban Planning (CAUP) are blending education and practical experience while helping Detroit neighborhoods build bridges to the future.

” This is part of an effort to forge closer links between the talent-rich university and the economically distressed city,” said Robert Beckley, dean of the College.

Much of the College’s efforts in working with community on economic redevelopment efforts on the city’s east side is aided by a $580,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—a grant U-M shares with Michigan State and Wayne State universities—which established the Detroit Community Outreach Partnership Center.

Students working with the Detroit Eastside Community Collaborative, a coalition of community groups including Islandview Village Development Corporation, U-SNAP-BAC, Nortown Community Development Corporation, and Messiah Housing Corporation, among others, are surveying existing building conditions, conducting tenure by structure analyses of properties, and developing plans with community residents for the re-use of vacant properties as viable residential and commercial developments.

” The whole endeavor is building relationships between community groups and the University that likely will not fade in this century,” said Donald Softley, chairman of the coalition. ” We’d be lost without the help of the students. Many of the neighborhood groups are so underfunded and understaffed that even two or three students make an enormous difference.”

The students, too, find the work very rewarding. ” It’s great,” said Josh Sirefman, a graduate student in urban planning. ” As a student I could not be getting more valuable experience anywhere in the country. It’s an extraordinary opportunity for me.” Sirefman is one of 10 CAUP students who have participated in U-M’s Michigan Neighborhood AmeriCorps Program.

In another Detroit project, U-M architecture students are helping in the renovation of the historic Norris House, an 1873 residence built by noted Detroit businessman and Civil War veteran Philetus Walter Norris. Located near Mt. Elliott and the Davison freeway, the vacant property is on the National Register of Historic Places. Students are developing measured, scaled drawings of the existing house and how it can be renovated for use in the community. To that end, they are also developing plans for building an addition to the existing structure.

In yet another outreach program, CAUP students are working with the coalition’s U-SNAP-BAC in the spring term to develop designs for new single-family houses utilizing computer models. The computer models will be used to test the energy efficiency of the proposed designs and new structures. This project is funded in part by a grant from the Michigan Campus Compact, which works to encourage educational institutions to incorporate community service learning activities into their course offerings.

” The students spend a lot of time in Detroit,” said Brian Carter, chair of CAUP’s architecture program. ” This is more than going to Detroit once and then coming back to design something in splendid isolation.”

Urban planning and landscape architecture students from U-M have been working on a project to survey and redevelop Detroit’s Chandler Park. The students have interviewed youngsters from a nearby middle school about what they want and expect from the park and are working on design solutions that will better link the park with an adjacent public housing project.

” All in all,” said Ernest Burkeen, Detroit’s director of Parks and Recreation, ” both the university and the city have been enriched by this growing relationship. The key to the relationship is the ingenuity and youthful vigor of the U-M students. They don’t think about why they can’t. They think about why they can.”

More than one bridge to the future is under construction. Bridges are being developed to connect the College and the city of Detroit, to connect community groups within the city and U-M students to areas and opportunities they might never have known.

” It’s a wonderful educational experience for the students,” said Robert Marans, chairman of the CAUP’s Urban and Regional Planning Program, ” not to mention that we get to do some good.”

Michigan Campus Compact