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RISD students develop community ties

May 18, 2011

PAWTUCKET — A new pavilion and garden project that is nearing completion on Roosevelt Avenue seems to represent the type of “win-win” situation that the Rhode Island School of Design's Architecture Department wants to have with local communities.
For 70 sophomore undergraduate and first-year graduate architecture students used to designing structures only on paper and computer screens, it was a chance to swing a hammer, wield a saw, and learn first-hand how wooden boards should be fitted together to form a solid structure. For neighborhood residents and members of the Chinese Christian Church and Heritage Park YMCA, the RISD class project leaves behind a permanent community garden and an open-air, riverside pavilion and picnic area for public use.
The site of the project is 333 Roosevelt Avenue, on land owned by Louis Yip and his business partner, Sonny Ng. The community garden and picnic pavilion was designed primarily for use by the members of the three entities that are located on the property: the Chinese Christian Church, an adjacent community housing complex for seniors and the children and staff of the Heritage Park YMCA.
According to Silvia Acosta, Course Coordinator with the Department of Architecture at RISD, this semester was part of a course called
Architectural Design that is designed to introduce students to the relationship between design and construction. Acosta said that in past years, she has coordinated these programs abroad in underprivileged communities, but more recently, has focused on doing the construction projects locally, first in Providence with the Parks Department and now in Pawtucket.
The project involves two distinct areas on the property that runs along the Blackstone River. At the upper part of the site is the community garden which features raised planting beds, an open-air pavilion with tool storage, water collection containers for irrigation, a roof with catchment and seating. The lower part of the site, close to the riverbank, has another open-air pavilion for multiple uses and a large picnic table. This pavilion also offers views to the river. A rain garden along the river's edge is also in the works for a second phase of the project, Acosta said.
For the past six weeks, the students, accompanied by Acosta and five other RISD faculty members, have been working 24 hours a week at the site. They have almost reached their completion deadline of May 26, after which, the academic year ends. “This is the first time a single design project comes out of a design studio composed of 70 students,” said Acosta.
Acosta noted the importance of having the students experience the “design/build” component of architectural design. With the garden pavilion, in particular, she said the idea is that this design would serve as a model for other communities to practice more sustainable ways.
Penny Zack, an assistant with the Chinese Christian Church, praised the project, saying that it will bring elements of education about gardening as well as enjoyment to young and old alike. She said the senior citizens who live nearby will be invited to plant the garden and make it part of their everyday life, while the young children who attend the Heritage Park YMCA will be able to get a lesson in how vegetables grow. She also said she could envision the riverfront pavilion being used during community gatherings and festivals.
Zack pointed out that the new additions by the RISD students contribute in the efforts to revitalize that portion of Roosevelt Avenue that has already been brightened considerably by the addition of cherry trees and other flowers. “The whole street has been improved,” she said, gesturing in both directions.
The RISD students working on the project were universal in their enthusiasm about doing hands-on construction. Lissy King said, “Normally, we do drawings, so it is good to see how something is actually constructed. We're learning all the details about how things go together, and a lot of this you don't realize until you build something.”
Susannah Stopford commented that taking part in the construction “helps you learn to realistically detail your projects.” She said that the group project also “does a lot for morale. People really like to see how it looks at the end.” She noted how the project had gone from the computer design stage to a three-dimensional model and then to construction, and said there was “the satisfaction that comes from working hard and seeing what you can do.”
Mariana Botero agreed, saying, “It's one thing to draw a design and another to actually see every detail and make it work. You have to think of everything that is involved in the building process.”
Marisa Paz also said the project proved valuable in showing the relationship between the architectural model and what was being built. She noted how various situations kept arising in which the actual construction proved to be much different from how it had gone in building the model. “It's also nice to be able to contribute to a community,” she noted.
Kyle Kaiser said the project was beneficial in helping him to get to know how things go together. He spoke of the value of being able to “feel the gravity” of the building materials and employing various construction skills to ensure that a structure is stable “and so it doesn't fall over.”
Dan Laster agreed, saying “There are a lot of things we learn in the studio, but, working outside like this gives us the chance to learn things about construction that have never been discussed in the classroom. It expands our understanding of how things are put together.”
In its early stages, the project inadvertently ran afoul of the city's permitting process. City Building Inspector John Hanley was driving by the property one day when he was surprised to see the large group of students sawing and hammering away. He said the city had not been advised of the project and hadn't been shown the plans, nor had anyone applied for a building permit. He was initially concerned, as well, of the project needing approval from the city's Riverfront Commission and, because of the lower pavilion's proximity to the river, the state Department of Environmental Management.
Acosta said the confusion about the permitting process arose because the project site and the type of project itself had been revised from an earlier plan that had involved the creation of a community garden on city-owned land on Front Street, located on the opposite side of the river. However, that plan fell through when it as determined that remediation of this land, a former industrial site that was designated for a “brownfields” clean-up, had not been completed.
With the semester looming, Acosta said that she and other faculty had to scramble to find a new location, and they were eventually put in contact with Louis Yip by The Pawtucket Foundation. She said the local businessman was happy to accommodate the students, and they revamped the project for the new and expanded purposes at 333 Roosevelt Avenue. “Mr. Yip came to our rescue and generously allowed us to develop these projects on his property,” said Acosta. “He's been very supportive. Everyone has been trying to do their best in seeing if we can make this happen.”
After more meetings and phone calls with city officials, the plans were submitted, the Riverfront Commission was consulted, and an application was duly filed with the Department of Environmental Management. The project was allowed to continue with the understanding that, if it needs to be removed, it will be. However, Acosta said from what she has been told so far, there shouldn't be any problems in getting DEM approval. She said that when the project was revised for the new site, it wasn't thought to be anything that would be infringing on the river.
As the building inspector noted, building is about permitting, too, and the students came away with a greater understanding of the process and the bureaucratic “red tape” that can sometimes slow down even the best intentioned projects.
Nationally renowned designer Morris Nathanson spoke in support of Acosta and the RISD student project at this week's meeting of the Riverfront Commission. He described the work done on the community garden and riverfront pavilions as “fabulous.” “The concept, in my opinion, is extraordinary. When it comes to architecture and design, everyone sees things differently, but I think this is extremely creative and a wonderful gift to the community.”
Nathanson acknowledged that there were some concerns raised by the Riverfront Commission about the way the process was handled, but said that any oversight came about because the project started out as a temporary one that later evolved into a more permanent endeavor. “The labor that went into this was incredible. If you tabulated all of the hours involved, it would represent over $200,000 in labor,” he stated.
Acosta stated, “We are grateful to Mr. Louis Yip for providing us the site for community building as well as financial support to fulfill the project's ambition.” She said she also wanted to acknowledge the Department of Architecture at RISD which contributed approximately $10,550 in funding, the J.R. Vinagro Corporation, which made a substantial donation of lumber, The Pawtucket Foundation, which helped fund landscaping elements and the Heritage Park YMCA, which let the students borrow tools.
In addition, Acosta singled out Wilbur Yoder, a noted architect/engineer who stamped the drawings and contributed his time with calculations and detailed specifications for the structures. She also acknowledged the other RISD faculty members, Adrienne Benz, Hanzy Better, Jawn Lim, Enrique Martinez and Jason Wood, who helped her teach the course and donated their time on Saturdays and Sundays to supervise the construction process.
“As the coordinator of the course, and on behalf of the other faculty members teaching with me, we are pleased with the proposed work and believe that the project will add a wonderful public amenity to the developing Roosevelt Avenue, while serving as a sustainable model for future gardening projects,” said Acosta. “We are also confident that the church community will benefit greatly from the new programs brought to the site.”


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