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Bright Ideas

Students Design Solutions for Neighborhood

Davocae Whiteside

Michael Hambrick

Students at the GRPS Academy of Design and Construction are getting in on the ground floor, so to speak, as they partner with Habitat Kent to envision, design, and eventually build a mixed-use development right in their own community. 
The old adage, "children should be seen and not heard," doesn't ring true in Grand Rapids' southwest Roosevelt Park neighborhood. Here, Habitat for Humanity of Kent County (Habitat Kent) has partnered with Grand Rapids Public Schools' (GRPS) Academy of Design and Construction (ADC) in its first mixed-use, community-based redevelopment project. The two organizations, who have worked together for the past five years on housing projects, have now turned their focus to the former St. Joseph the Worker Church property along Rumsey Street – and they're bringing the ADC students along for the ride.
"I'm really excited about the project because it is going to be the first mixed-use development that we will have been a part of," says Ivor Thomas, the Director of Land Acquisition for Habitat Kent. "We've done some actual housing developments, but to be involved in a project where there is going to be business and community development is going to be a first time for us."
While the organization's previous projects have focused primarily on construction, the Rumsey Redevelopment marks the first time ADC students have been heavily involved in the design process. In late January 2014, Habitat Kent and ADC hosted a design charrette focused on giving students an opportunity to share their thoughts on how the project could best serve the neighborhood and community. The charrette paired teams of ADC students with design professionals, urban planners and architects to freely create what they deemed essential for a vibrant and thriving community.
"So often as a youth, you look for an adult to give you that answer to whether something is right or wrong, but in this charrette process, there is no wrong answer," says Lamont Edwards, owner of Blu|mark Design Studio and one of the design professionals guiding students through the charrette. "After ten or fifteen minutes of joking with the students, they opened up and realized that the sky was the limit with this project."
Teams of design students clustered around maps of the Rumsey site and, eagerly clutching dry erase markers, laid out their visions of what Roosevelt Park needed in a community center. Following the design process, they were required to present their designs to explain what they were proposing, why they chose it and then make the case for why it was good in the community. Student design solutions ranged in scope from increasing the lighting around the property and installing roundabouts to slow traffic, to envisioning a small sustainable restaurant, stocked with produce from an adjacent community garden.
"I have known for a very long time that the more voice you give to students the more empowered and creative they feel, and the more brilliance you see come out of them," says Gideon Sanders, the Director of Innovative Strategies for GRPS.
A portion of the presentation was dedicated to charrette leaders asking students hard questions about their design decisions in order to mirror challenges they would face in presenting their ideas to the public. One group envisioned a homeless warming shelter as part of their development site. This prompted Thomas to state, in the manner of a concerned citizen, "I don't want any homeless people near my kids." What followed was a testament to the students' passion for their communities.
"A quiet girl who was leading the presentation found her voice and went on a speech to me about what community is all about. She said that it's about people of different types living and working together and supporting each other," says Thomas. "We had 120 people in the basement of this church and it was like the whole place went dead silent and she articulated what community was all about with such power that I had never seen before."
That dialogue prompted another student to chime in with, "That's okay because we don't want any mean people here either."
The partnership with ADC students is an integral part of Habitat Kent's community based development process. Prior to the event, the group embarked on a series of door-to-door surveys coupled with public meetings to determine what the community thought was the most beneficial addition to their neighborhood.
Roosevelt Park has a population of approximately 2,450 residents with 26% between the ages of 5 and 17, compared to the city-wide average of 17.2%, according to the Community Research Institute. The high concentration of young people in this neighborhood prompted the majority of residents to call for a community center focused on opportunities for youth.
"What we are really doing is reaching into the heart of the city and identifying the talent," says Thomas. "If you look at best practices for community development these days, the best chance you have at a community development initiative is that you're working with the people that are from the community. They know better than anyone else what will work and what will not work."
The national housing crisis devastated the Roosevelt Park neighborhood, which saw nearly double the foreclosure rates as other parts of the city, according to an October 2013 report by Habitat Kent. In order to help spur the economic recovery of the area, the project will also include economic opportunity through small business, affordable housing and shared community space.
"They [the community] did not want a development that would say, 'We have an exclusive club.' They all have this vision of shared community and space," says Thomas. "This was all about the greater neighborhood and community, and I found that very hopeful. They may not have the resources of other communities, but they still want to be in community with one another. That is some powerful stuff."
For the ADC students, the Rumsey Redevelopment project did not end with the design charrette. The organizations plan to incorporate the students throughout the planning and development process. It is possible that students who were involved in the January charrette will be the ones constructing the buildings when the project breaks ground in two years.
"Innovation Central is actually unique for Grand Rapids schools in that we draw from all four quadrants of the city," says Sanders. "We have students from that [Roosevelt Park] neighborhood, we have students from opposite sides of that neighborhood and we have students whose friends are in that neighborhood. So there is a sense of necessity for them to be involved, a sense of desire, because they know they are going to spend time there."
The project seeks to expose students to both the design and construction process in order to provide a more diverse educational experience and explore different higher education and career choices for students. It also cultivates a sense of community ownership and empowerment, in hopes of retaining talented professionals within the city.
"This opportunity of allowing students to really have a voice in the process of how you design a neighborhood is an awesome experience," says Edwards. "They can say when they are done with high school, 'I was a part of it.' And individuals can come back to their community and allow it to thrive."
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