Workshop brings smart planning to Elm City

The storefronts of a Chapel St. block offer a whimsical procession through Connecticut kitsch — a yellowed Dutch Boy paint ad, wads of Christmas lights — before arriving at the Yale Urban Design Workshop, a fluorescent-lit cache of Bass wood models and architectural drawings.

Founded in 1992, the UDW has occupied a unique niche in the New Haven cityscape by adding an academic perspective to regional urban planning by using the intellectual resources of the Yale School of Architecture. While the idea of an urban planning boutique may evoke black European suits and obscure accents, the UDW is more of a familial institution: a small office, run by urban studies professor Alan Plattus and staffed by architecture students, that offers non-profit assistance for Connecticut urban design projects.

The Yale Urban Design Workshop on Chapel Street gives free help to Connecticut urban design projects. The School of Architecture acts as a resource for the workshop.
Ben Muller
The Yale Urban Design Workshop on Chapel Street gives free help to Connecticut urban design projects. The School of Architecture acts as a resource for the workshop.

A history of ‘perfect circumstances’

This notion of town-gown symbiosis is hardly novel, Plattus said. Similar community design centers have existed since the 1960s, when architects were looking to offer grassroots services to local populations outside of immediate professional relationships. At Yale, this need has materialized in the UDW, which Plattus co-founded in 1992.

“There was a perception in the field,” Plattus said, “that professionals could make a significant contribution to their communities by making their expertise accessible to neighborhood groups and disenfranchised constituencies — people who wouldn’t think that they have access to design professionals.”

While other states have an archipelago of pre-professional architecture programs to draw on, the Yale School of Architecture was for many years the only university-based architecture program in the state, which was often an impetus for much of UDW’s business, Plattus said.

“Fifteen years ago, when we started up, we were kind of a local phenomenon, because Yale had the only professional program in Connecticut,” he said. “We would get calls from people around the region saying, ‘Can the school help us with this? Can the school help us with that?’”

The procedure for these commissions usually involves local clients approaching the UDW for assistance on a project and paying a minimal fee to cover student work time and overhead. After that, the UDW process is often highly participatory, involving an open dialogue with community groups or even professional firms from a breadth of disciplines.

New Haven Deputy Director of Economic Development Tony Bialecki said these collaborations are both cost-effective for local professional firms and beneficial to the creative process.

“I think the perfect circumstance is when they’re able to work with the neighborhood and community development corporations or some of the commercial business districts,” he said. “They often need lots of technical assistance. It’s an excellent way for them to interact and use their talents and skills to better a project.”

Bialecki also explained how the UDW’s non-profit status engenders more of an experimental quality in their work. They are reputed to have a lot of fresh energy and enthusiasm, offering new and creative ideas that professional firms often curtail because of financial issues, he said.

This creativity has given them prominence in the urban design community, and the firm has been awarded such large-scale projects as the Gateway Community College project in downtown New Haven. The UDW is collaborating with the New York office of megafirm Perkins+Will on the development, which will offer 400,000 square feet of space to serve 10,000 students and staff.

“There is often a missing link with big firms and the local community, especially in micro issues,” Bialecki said. “There’s continuity over the years with the UDW — knowledge of what’s going on. They provided a tremendous amount of information to the process.”

Small-time planners

The front room of the UDW — separated from the elms of Chapel St. by a plate glass bay window — reveals much of the practice’s work: Swags of renderings are draped casually over tabletops and hung from racks. One project involves transforming vacant airport hangers in Bethany, Conn., into functioning community event centers. Another project seeks to create a vibrant town center along the Route 84 corridor in North Branford, providing an urban nucleus to a bedroom community.

Behind a moveable partition, beside which rests a mountain bike, lies the workspace of the office: a smattering of desktop computers and a large central table. Plattus explained how much of the UDW’s work pertains to issues of adaptive reuse of existing structures rather than tabula rasa developments, like that of the Gateway center.

“We try to take issues like the problem of post-industrial urbanism in the Northeast, a region that was formerly driven by an industrial economy and now is very different, and [analyze what that means] for cities and communities,” he said.

Currently, the firm is redeveloping the parking structures of the Branford Green, which are awkwardly integrated and cluttered. The UDW, in collaboration with a traffic engineering firm, is working to redirect some of the superfluous parking density throughout the city, Plattus said. To arrive at this proposal, the UDW extensively researched the history of Connecticut town greens as well as that of the Branford Green.

“We had heard rave reviews about YUDW from other towns that had worked with them,” said Shirley Rasmussen, a representative of Branford’s town planning department. “In particular, we had heard about their work on town greens … They have been especially good at eliciting positive input from the public on a subject that people hold strong opinions on.”

The Branford Green project is an archetypal model of the UDW’s work, as they are often sought out and contracted by towns and community groups. Nick McDermott ARC ’08, a part-time employee of UDW, explained that this is not often the case with architecture firms.

“I’ve worked at a few firms, including [Skidmore Owings Merrill] for almost two years,” he said. “And obviously the UDW is a lot different than that. But what’s nice about the UDW is that there are a lot of projects and for the most part the projects come to us. From what I understand, there’s as much work coming in as we can handle, maybe more.”

‘More than just bread-and-butter stuff’

While a lot of the UDW’s work involves intimate collaborations with big-name firms, perhaps the workshop’s most distinguishing feature is its involvement with local community groups on specific projects.

“A lot of these communities really aren’t ready yet to sit down with architects or engineers or landscape architects and develop a project because they don’t know what project they’re doing,” Plattus said. “So we come up with things like feasibility studies, which actually lead to work for other local professionals.”

This phenomenon is especially evident in their New Haven Dwight neighborhood developments, which have generated a unique urban planning model for local developers. In 1995, the Department of Housing and Urban Development award Yale a $2.4 million grant to encourage collaboration between UDW and the Dwight community. The UDW has engaged the Dwight community in making future plans for the neighborhood, culling collective visions and goals from the public.

One byproduct of this town-gown synergy was the Dwight School Assembly Building, a 9,300 square-foot addition that provides the town with community space and expanded classrooms. The project — all gleaming steel and yellow sans serif font — is a strikingly contemporary addition to a neighborhood of New England clapboard homes.

While the UDW is wedded to the pragmatism of city planning organizations and community groups, it also draws its workforce from the concrete caverns of the Yale School of Architecture, which is situated a block down Chapel St. As such, many of the nation’s forefront urbanists participate in the UDW’s planning projects, including a recent project involving Cynthia Farrar and Doug Rae, author of “City: Urbanism and Its End.”

As McDermott explained, this offers the UDW a more progressive and decidedly academic perspective on urbanism, which is not common among professional architecture firms.

“Sometimes it feels like there’s a lot of crossover between school and the UDW, especially since everyone takes Alan’s class in the first year,” McDermott said. “On the other hand urban design isn’t architecture, and the projects the UDW takes on are completely different than the projects we encounter in studio.”

Still, the UDW provides a unique supplement for architecture students, who often work on simulative projects that are never realized.

“Being in the office is a great balance to school,” McDermott said. “In some sense the potential of the UDW hasn’t been fully realized, but at the same time the modesty and honest commitment to working with the communities of the state is what makes the UDW such a great organization.”

Despite its successes in fielding larger and larger projects from both local towns and developers, neither Plattus nor Yale University President Richard Levin plan on expanding the operation outside of its humble Chapel St. headquarters.

“They’ve made a number of contributions to the city of New Haven and have engaged students in the school,” Levin said, “[but] there are many worthy activities here. If you ask does this deserve more investment, for 95 percent of the things we do, you have to say yes. But we have finite resources.”

The UDW has no desire to expand to arenas of greater financial profit or to other states. As Plattus explained, their work is more cerebral than profit-based: “We try to take on issues that have an intellectual context or a specific design challenge that makes them more than just bread-and-butter stuff.”

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