Students Develop Economic Revival Plans for Buffalo Neighborhoods

Release Date: March 22, 2012

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UB Law Professor John Schlegel teaches a course where students prepare economic development plans for Buffalo neighborhoods.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Don't tell the students in the University at Buffalo Law School's Regional Economic Development class the next big idea to revive Western New York communities isn't sitting in plain sight -- complete with reader-friendly illustrations.

That goal -- bringing fresh economic development ideas to neighborhoods that need a boost-- was the brainchild of the late UB President William R. Greiner. Over time, he recruited UB Law School Professor John H. Schlegel and two top community development players to teach in the course. The challenge was to create an innovative cross-disciplinary course -- Regional Economic Development -- intended to give law students practical experience in the subject, with a distinctive emphasis: bringing visualization to the legal debate.

At the same time, the course would let students attempt to identify a real need in the community, apply the theory learned in the classroom and then design a plan that would address this need.

Recently, the Regional Economic Development course added one more component. The law students would work with students in UB's School of Architecture and Planning to give the projects what its instructor called a three-dimensional element, a quality that gives those looking at the proposals the opportunity to visualize what the actual project would look like far beyond the normal two-dimensional map-making.

"It's the old line from 'The Music Man." 'You've got to know the territory,'" says Schlegel, who took charge of the course after Greiner died in 2009. "You have to be able to see the site in the neighborhood. Seeing it will help you understand whether the local people will either embrace a project or reject it. And that will make the lawyer's role more clear."

The 14 students taking the course last semester produced five projects, which they presented this semester. Essential to their proposals was making them as visually interesting as possible. And that's where students of Mitchell Bring -- an architect and specialist in computer visualization and model-building, and an adjunct professor in UB's School of Architecture and Planning -- got involved.

Bring's students worked with the law students to add "3-D visualization" to the projects.

"In the real world, lawyers are teamed up with urban planners and architects working with developers," Bring said. "This gives the students a great opportunity to combine all their talents and abilities."

Bring says those designing the course wanted to get the students and those reviewing the projects the ability "see the environment they were talking about."

Schlegel had the benefit of sharing the teaching with two people recruited earlier by Greiner, people who clearly could bridge the gap between academic courses and real-world application: Richard Tobe, recently appointed Erie County deputy county executive, and James J. Allen, executive director of the Amherst Industrial Development Agency and an adjunct professor in the UB Department of Urban and Regional Planning.

The result were five student projects -- all grounded in urban planning principles they studied in class -- designed to address and fundamentally change a shortcoming in five Buffalo neighborhoods.

* "The "Heights Plaza" Proposal by Daniel Fabian, Joel Terragnoli, with Gun Hyoung Kim. Their plan to revitalize the University Heights neighborhood and the Lasalle Street neighborhood, includes a "virtual walk" around the neighborhood that provides a "bird's eye view" of the changes in streets and amenities the students propose.

* "Railroad Renaissance: An Urbane North Buffalo Community" by Michael Cimasi,Shervin Rismani and Jeffrey Tyrpak, with Theresa DeCelis and Meng Yu. This project proposes a new "pedestrian friendly yet auto accessible" environment for the vacant Erie-Lackawanna Railroad corridor in North Buffalo between Delaware and Colvin avenues.

* "Encouraging Social and Economic Growth in Kenmore's Delaware Avenue Business District" by Michael Herberger, Ryan McCarthy and Jacob McNamara, with Elnaz Haj Abotalebi. The students proposed changes include a gateway and pedestrian-exclusive zones in the heart of the Village of Kenmore.

* "The Rock: A look at Buffalo's Black Rock Neighborhood Through the Eyes of Jane Jacobs" by Christina Akers, David Burgess and Megan VanWie with Troy Joseph. The students recommend short-term improvements: street lights, public benches and beautification projects; along with longer-term changes such as a pedestrian bridge.

* West Utica Street Triangle by Gretchen Sullivan and Christopher Szczygiel, with Zhaoyu Luo. The proposal suggests a "micro-loan" fund for residents limited to $1,000 each, a community land trust and specific changes such as an ethnic community kitchen, a community gym and an ice skating rink.

In-depth descriptions and visuals for all five projects are available upon request.

"The university values cross-disciplinary teaching and research," Schlegel said. "Our approach may be a little odd, but it works. These law students will come out this better lawyers, especially those who will be doing development work."

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