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Heavy lifting by UB students aims to help revive Heights

UB alumnus Darren Cotton, founder of the University Heights Tool Library

UB alumnus Darren Cotton, founder of the University Heights Tool Library, is working with UB students and faculty on projects to improve quality of life in University Heights.

Published April 10, 2013

They are called PULL projects—multiyear Pop-Up Living Laboratories—whose aim is to promote economic stabilization, neighborhood revitalization, crime reduction and a prosperous business district in the University Heights neighborhood surrounding the UB South Campus.

“Our mission is to use student interests to allow them to devise and execute projects to assist their community partners.”
Barbara Bono, Director
Civic Engagement Academy

PULL projects are designed and implemented by students enrolled in UB’s Undergraduate Academies, working in close collaboration with the proactive University Heights Collaborative, led by its president, Mickey Vertino; the University Heights Tool Library, founded and directed by UB alumnus Darren Cotton; and UB alumnus Aaron Krolikowski, who helps lead the PULL initiative.

The Undergraduate Academies are inclusive and diverse residential communities of students enrolled in one of five interdependent programs or academies: Civic Engagement, Entrepreneurship, Research Exploration, Sustainability and Global Perspectives.

Barbara Bono, associate professor of English, heads the Civic Engagement Academy, whose students are united by their interest in becoming informed, active and skilled citizens committed to serving the public good. Several of her students are involved with the Heights projects, which offer them concrete ways in which they can employ their skills.

“PULL is helping to redefine the relationship between the university and the surrounding neighborhoods by leveraging students as a community asset and channeling their knowledge, skills and excitement into low-cost, high-impact projects throughout the Heights,” Cotton says.

PULL projects, introduced at the beginning of the spring 2013 semester, involve students from one or more academies working up to four hours a week over the course of the semester to design a plan aimed at solving a community problem and then, working closely with community stakeholders, to implement it.

The projects are in the process of completion, although none are finished yet. Once the PULL projects are in place, students will be required to produce a five-page briefing report and a paper in which they discuss their personal observations and reflections associated with the project.

One project requires the three partners to design, administer and analyze surveys that assess community needs and gaps among businesses along the Main Street commercial corridor from Hertel Avenue to Kenmore Avenue. (The Bailey Avenue commercial corridor from Winspear Avenue to Kensington Avenue will be the subject of a future survey.) The data will be used to assemble a neighborhood revitalization proposal for the New York State Division of Homes and Community Renewal (DHCR) requesting a $500,000 grant for building renovation and streetscape improvements.

Another project—this one conducted by members of the UB Undergraduate Consulting Club, whose members are interested in management consulting—will prepare a generic business plan for use by businesses in the district, a project that will require consultation with owners of similar businesses in the area and the close assistance of the University Heights Tool Library staff.

Another project will develop a comprehensive neighborhood branding strategy aimed at improving the internal and external perception of the Heights.

Undergraduate Academy students also are developing a strategic plan for the use of seven underutilized “triangle parks” located along and around the Main Street commercial corridor. They point out that these little parks help unify a neighborhood, so there is a need to effectively use the land.

Finally, the PULL project called “The Abutments: Public Engagement as Art” is helping the Heights community transform a vacated railway line into a collection of informally used public spaces. The line runs along dead end streets running off the west side of Main Street from Minnesota Avenue to Kenmore Avenue.

“The UHC Rails to Trails Committee is dedicated to turning the old rail line into a multi-use recreational trail that would connect Main Street and Kenmore Avenue,” Cotton says. “Two large and imposing graffiti-covered bridge abutments frame a gateway to this parkland and hold massive potential for community building.”

PULL students are conducting and analyzing surveys of 50 nearby residents for their ideas on the use of the land and researching innovative types of publicly engaged art. They then will make a formal proposal for specific uses of the abutments and adjacent lands.

Students in each of the Undergraduate Academies share residential and working space and, with faculty members, community agencies, and city and regional leaders, develop a real-world experience and perspectives in their particular areas of interest.

“Our mission is to use student interests to allow them to devise and execute projects to assist their community partners,” Bono says. “In turn, the students and the Heights neighborhood receive ample assistance and guidance from Mickey Vitrino, Darren Cotton, Aaron Krolikowski and other community members.”

PULL projects that have been proposed for future consideration include:

  • The “Preparation of PULL Space,” a labor-intensive “peeling back” of layers of structural modifications on an empty storefront on West Northrup Street adjacent to the Tool Library, which then could be used as a small business incubator.
  • A proposal that would look at ways to transform an underutilized community-events board at the intersection of Main Street and Winspear Avenue into a community asset.
  • “Buffalo Trax Graffiti,” a project to help empower the community to get rid of graffiti and keep it gone through the use of new technology. Students would help residents use a GPS-enabled smart phone app to collect data related to incidences of graffiti throughout the neighborhood. Using data collection and analysis tools, the UH Tool Library would develop a comprehensive graffiti-removal report and work with stakeholders to develop an action plan.
  • A Business Association Reactivization Project, aimed at re-establishing the now-defunct Heights Business Association. This effort, encouraged by the influx of six new businesses, is aimed at promoting community/business cohesion in a way that will support economic development and reduce crime.