One of the most sought-after distinctions for landscape architecture and architecture students is winning the Urban Land Institute’s (ULI) Gerald D. Hines Student Urban Design Competition.
The requirements for the $50,000 prize in 2010 were as rigorous as ever: thoroughly re-imagine in a professional way a section of downtown San Diego that has fallen on hard times.
In some ways, the competition was more acute than usual, as several of the top teams were comprised of professionals in the field who had returned to graduate school due to the economic recession.
The College of Design team members lacked that level of experience, but it hardly seemed to matter. The five-person team—which included an urban planning student from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—beat out Harvard, UPenn, and over 100 other college teams to claim the top spot in this year’s competition.
“I can’t think of another competition I’d rather win,” said Rebecca Lea Myers (MLA 2010) who traveled with her team to San Diego for final judging in April.
The winning students from NC State were Myers, Maria Papiez, Jeff Pleshek, and Matt Tomasulo. Their faculty advisor for the competition was Robin Abrams, Head of the School of Architecture, with close advisement from Simon Atkinson, a professor of landscape architecture who has successfully advised other university teams in the competition in years’ past.
Daria Khramtsova, the urban design student from UNC, and advisor Emil Malizia, Chair of the Department of City and Regional Planning at UNC, rounded out the winning crew.
The East Village of San Diego comprises 325 acres, which Myers and Tomasulo toured prior to developing the team’s entry. The team imagined a neighborhood with new public space for families of different income levels and included a business incubation area, as well.
The team made their design pedestrian-friendly, with a streetscape that emphasizes public transportation. Neighbors share a large green space. And to make sure there are enough social services to support the people of East Village, their Think Box is a nexus for community-based nonprofit organizations.
Along the way they paid close attention to corridors, green links, and making sure the public realm was something that neighborhood residents would truly use.
Having grown up in New York City, Myers (currently enrolled in the College’s Ph.D. in Design Program) said she felt comfortable designing a space that suited children as well as adults—a quality missing from most urban spaces these days, the team had observed.
“Cities are lacking families,” Tomasulo said. “So we focused on people, on social sustainability.”
Thinking strategically and understanding a place thoroughly are two emphases of the College’s design education that helped his team prevail, Tomasulo added.
Team members had two weeks to produce their first set of boards. A month later, four finalist teams were chosen (Harvard, UPenn, University of Maryland, and the North Carolina team). Because a couple of the students were out of town for spring break, the group effectively had just two weeks to prepare themselves for the questioning that the judges would direct their way.
Steve Schuster, AIA, of Clearscapes was one of several from the design community who tested the team in a dry run at the College before the finals in San Diego.
“They tackled real-world issues and didn’t take the glamorous approach that student work usually takes,” said Schuster. “They looked at what kind of amenities should be provided to the public to make the neighborhood viable.”
Though the exercise was purely theoretical, there’s always a chance that leaders in San Diego will take the plan and run with it.
“The idea is out there now,” said Myers. “A lot of the community stakeholders were there, as well as local developers and architects.”
This was the eighth year the competition has been held. Founded over 70 years ago, the Urban Land Institute boasts 33,000 members worldwide whose mission is to provide leadership in the responsible use of land and creating thriving communities.
As for the prize money, $5,000 was split between the School of Architecture and UNC’s department of urban planning. The remaining $45,000 was split five ways among the students.
“If you divide that by the work hours, that’s about $2 an hour,” quipped Myers.
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