TNP, New York students work to fight blight

WARREN – Walking through 355 Washington St. NE – an abandoned, dilapidated yellow wood frame house – Amy John and six other students from the New York-based New School learned about the dangers of asbestos and lead paint often encountered during the renovation of homes in older city neighborhoods.

The students were in Warren Friday as part of an effort by the Parsons School of Design and Milano New School of Public Engagement to work with Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership to find ways to eliminate blight.

The students spent time measuring and photographing each room in the Washington Street house, and at houses at 194 Belmont Ave. NE and at 736 Mahoning Ave. NE

John, 32, an integrated design student, is rethinking the use of the house. A former single-family house, it was divided into four different apartments before it was abandoned. Restoration would require a new property owner to turn it back into a single-family home.

“I’m not only looking at this as a house, but as a part of the neighborhood and and a piece of the community,” she said.

John Evan, who works with the Howland Co., talked to the students about how making the house safe by removing lead paint and asbestos is important when doing the design, because it will drive up the price of renovation.

“It may add to the costs, but it eliminates potential health hazards for homeowners and children,” he said.

Alison Mears, director of the Healthy Materials Lab at the Parson School of Design said coming to Warren provides students an opportunity to work directly with people looking for ways to improve a city’s housing stock. Mears is one of three teachers from the two schools in Warren this weekend.

“Typically, design students tend to work in the abstract and are able to come up with fantastic ideas, but generally, there is not a real way to test them,” she said. “We ‘re not only interested in design theories, but also providing field practice, allowing students to work with people making changes on the ground.”

Two years ago, at the invitation of Melissa Homes, a New School alumna, Mears and different students came to Warren to find new ways to use the old Robins Theater. They returned a year later to do more work with the theater and find ways to use vacant properties by creating mini-parks and neighborhood gardens.

This is the first year the New School students are working with TNP to determine how saving the homes can improve neighborhoods .

“They are not coming here to do the renovations, but to develop ideas that we can use,” TNP Executive Director Matt Martin said.

“We have found it is better to work on longer term projects and focus one city at a time,” Mears said. “It can take three to five years to really get to know a community and what are its needs.”

In the two years the school has been coming to Warren, Mears said she has seen positive change.

“People appear to be more optimistic,” she said.

The students this semester will be thinking of multiple uses of some the city’s larger homes.

Max Freeman, a graduate student with the Milano New School of Public Engagement, said his team will be working to develop a financing plan for the renovation of the Mahoning Avenue property.

“We’re interested in learning how community organizations, like TNP, use grants and other financing methods to develop their programs,” Freeman said. “There is only so much we can learn from reading case studies.”

Martin said it is important to find a balance between renovating and demolishing properties.

Working in a community like Warren provides an opportunity for the school to see student ideas come to fruition, because property and renovation costs are so much higher in New York that executing the plans often is out of reach, Mears said.

The New School students are expected to return to Warren in May or early June with the results of their design projects.



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