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Students Building Connections

Rensselaer students are playing a vital role in neighborhood renewal through the School of Architecture’s Community Service Internship, a professional elective that began last fall and is taught by Frances Bronet, associate professor of architecture.

Bronet and Nelson organize the class in cooperation with the Hillside, Beman Park, and Mount Ida neighborhood associations, Community Gardens, and TAP. They are working with residents and business owners to develop a vision for city growth and a better future. 

In workshops on campus, fourth- and fifth-year architecture students work alongside professional planners, architects, and engineers to explore quality of life issues—traffic, parking, pedestrian safety, preservation of green space, and economic development—in the targeted neighborhoods.
* Barbara Nelson

“We didn’t want to acquire properties simply to push out the edges of campus. We wanted to talk to the neighbors to find out what the quality of life issues really were and how we could make things better,” says Rensselaer project manager Barbara Nelson ’80.

Photo by Mark McCarty
Last fall, students presented design plans for neighborhood renewal and also discussed ways to revitalize a neighborhood strip mall with improved pedestrian access. The workshops were a promising beginning to what Rensselaer envisions as a longer-term project in community planning.

“The program offers hands-on learning opportunities for architecture students while at the same time assisting local citizens in areas of city design and community development,” Bronet says.

Sharing a Rich History

Troy is dotted with nonprofit organizations and companies devoted to bettering their communities, and many of these nonprofits and Rensselaer have enjoyed a rich history together for decades. Students and faculty from the School of Architecture, for instance, established TAP in 1969 as a nonprofit corporation to provide professional assistance for those in need of affordable architectural services.

In January, New York state recognized the partnership when it honored TAP with the Empire Award specifically for supporting the university’s neighborhood renewal efforts. The first-time award, issued by the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal, honored 10 neighborhood and rural preservation companies assisting local communities in promoting and facilitating affordable housing and neighborhood development across the state.

“Troy is rich with community-based organizations, such as TAP, that are dedicated to improving the quality of life in this city and are an integral part of the university’s commitment to connect with the local community,” Nelson says.

Through the years TAP has benefited from the talents of numerous Rensselaer alumni, including the nonprofit’s current executive director, Joseph Fama ’70. Fama started as a work-study student at TAP the year it was established. Seven of the nine permanent staff members are Rensselaer graduates and four to six students a year are chosen for internships.

Barb Nelson is another alum TAP brought on board for several years. Nelson, who first came to Troy in 1975, met Fama while working on her architectural thesis five years later. She proposed redesigning a row of 10 vacant buildings on Grand Street in Troy during the time that the city was looking for proposals from developers. Although Nelson’s thesis did not result in the state housing authority’s eventual purchase and renovation of the buildings, it did land her a job with TAP, where she worked for six years before establishing her own firm, Pierpont Nelson Architects. She became a project manager for Rensselaer in 1991.

“Although TAP is a Troy neighborhood group, the fact is that without the people of Rensselaer and especially the School of Architecture, we could not exist,” Fama says.

Building Relationships

Providing the resources to repair and replace old buildings and other infrastructure is only part of what will make neighborhood renewal a sustainable force. Relationship-building is a big part of the plan, Nelson says.

She began working directly with residents a few years ago to find out their concerns and needs in the areas surrounding their homes. She introduced herself to people sitting on their front porches. She coordinated and attended community meetings held at local churches, at city hall, on campus, and, in some instances, in residents’ homes.

“Barb truly has been instrumental in bringing the neighborhood associations together and working with the city to improve the quality of life for all. The university has made people feel like they’re a working part of the community,” says Troy native Michele DeLair. “In the 53 years I’ve lived here, never has there been such an effort to work directly with the neighbors to make the city of Troy a better place to live.”

DeLair has much invested in Troy. In addition to being the president of one of the 10 and growing neighborhood associations in the city, she’s also a homeowner and landlord. She became the president of the Beman Park Neighborhood Association a few years ago just as Rensselaer was beginning its Neighborhood Renewal Initiative.

DeLair has seen much change in Troy.

“In the ’50s and ’60s, you could walk down the streets and see a soda fountain, a dry cleaner’s, at least four thriving mom-and-pop corner stores, a drugstore, and a barbershop,” she says.

Then people grew old and died, businesses and factories closed, and children moved away. The emptied buildings were sold to out-of-town investors who saw a market in renting to students.

“They packed the houses full of students, and never put a dime into the infrastructure,” DeLair says. “Many of those houses were torn down or are still in such poor condition that they’re safety hazards.”

But since Rensselaer, the city, businesses, and the neighborhood associations have worked more closely together in the past few years, many buildings have been brought to code. That by itself, neighbors say, has made a difference in how students treat the neighborhoods.

“Houses were dumps and, as a result, the students treated where they lived as dumps,” says Gerri FitzGerald, who co-owns four buildings with DeLair. “But that is changing.”

To improve the quality and quantity of the off-campus housing options for students, Rensselaer is developing relationships with landlords such as DeLair and FitzGerald through the Landlord Training Program, which the university hosts on campus four times a year.

The free, four-hour session—developed by the city administration, local police, residents, and various local organizations—teaches landlords about tenant selection, building codes, security, and legal rights of landlords and tenants.

Rensselaer also is developing a tenant resource program for students. The program includes a Web site listing available apartments and rooms, information on parking and how to choose a neighborhood, and information for students to identify building code violations.

“The program is a way for the university to encourage landlords to maintain apartments at high standards. In addition, we’ll be able to educate our students about their rights and responsibilities as tenants,” says Rick Hartt ’70, director of the Rensselaer Union.

“It’s one more step toward improving the student experience,” says Lisa Trahan, dean of the first-year experience. “Most graduates and transfers—especially those coming from other countries—are not able to pursue housing until they arrive on campus in late August. They need help during their transition in finding good, affordable living space to provide them with a good foundation in pursuing their education.”

About 2,900 full-time students—half of the undergraduate body and 95 percent of all graduate students—live off campus.

Building an Economic Engine

Rensselaer is undergoing unprecedented expansion. The university broke ground this spring for its 218,000-square-foot Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies. In addition, plans for the 160,000-square-foot experimental media and performing arts center are moving forward.

Many community members are welcoming the campus expansion as a way to economic growth. Rensselaer is the largest employer in Rensselaer County and the 14th largest private-sector employer in the Capital Region.

“Rensselaer has gone—and is going—through tremendous change and we hope that growth and vitality can fuel a systemic change in the fabric of the city, not just a cosmetic change on the edge of campus,” Nelson says.

“Rensselaer is realizing that to transform itself, it needs to help transform the city. We need to work together, and I think we’re rising to that challenge,” says Lynn Kopka, city policy analyst for Troy and president of the Washington Park Association.

“The campus is growing, and is attracting first-rate students, faculty, and employees,” Kopka adds. “That means the neighborhood associations really need to work hard to get those people to live here and encourage businesses to establish themselves here. Rensselaer is an economic engine and we need to get on board.”

Building Communication

An important goal in Rensselaer’s neighborhood renewal efforts is to keep the community apprised of campus developments and to address neighborhood concerns head-on.
To help meet this end, Rensselaer hired a director of community relations, Allison Newman, whose overall responsibility is to enhance community partnership programs and expand local outreach efforts (see, also, Focus on Allison Newman).

Newman already has developed a public information plan for the Institute’s ongoing construction and development projects. The plan is centered on issues relating to campus infrastructure, and maintaining a high quality of life for students, staff, faculty, and the surrounding community. It includes a series of monthly public meetings, a newly created Web site, telephone and e-mail hotlines, and a monthly neighborhood bulletin mailed to 1,800 residents, businesses, and students.

Newman also is working with local businesses and the city to establish Rensselaer’s role in Troy’s economic sustainability. The university, for instance, plans as much as possible to use local contractors for a wide range of products, from paper products to office furniture to florists, Newman says.

“We are implementing a neighbor-of-choice strategy,” Newman says. “We want people to say, ‘I want to live next to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.’ ” 


Rensselaer Magazine: September 2002
President's View Your Mail From the Archives Hawk Talk Class Notes Features
Front Page At Rensselaer Milestones
In Memoriam Making a Difference Staying Connected
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