Students and professors help renovate lots in Kensington

Architecture and community development students are working with Rowan University to redevelop the lots.

Students and professors from the architecture and community development departments are crafting redevelopment plans for five vacant lots in North Kensington as part of a project called the Brownfields Area-Wide Planning Program.

The project is funded by a $200,000 grant from the United States Environmental Protection Agency and is done in collaboration with the New Kensington Community Development Corporation, Rowan University and the consulting firm Econsult Solutions.

Architecture professor Sally Harrison said the project aims to give Kensington residents a voice in the neighborhood’s development process and create plans reflecting their redevelopment preferences.

She and several of her students are sketching the community’s ideas for the lots, which included parks, playgrounds and artist studios, that they hope to present at a community meeting in June. When the plans are finalized, the architecture team will create official renderings.

Harrison said the drawing process involves lots of back-and-forth conversation with Kensington residents.

“You don’t want to just drop something on people,” Harrison said. “We may have misinterpreted their ideas or they may have not said exactly what they wanted. It’s a process. You need to be interactive about it.”

A brownfield is a property where expansion, redevelopment or reuse might be complicated by hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants. The EPA grant comes from an annual program providing communities with funding to conceptualize how to use post-industrial vacant sites. The Kensington project was selected by the EPA in 2015.

In February, students in the community development course Placemaking: Revitalizing Urban Communities organized a workshop with Kensington residents and potential developers to discuss redevelopment ideas. Students facilitated discussions to fine-tune details of community ideas, like how to incorporate lighting and fences to make the plans preferable for community residents.

“They had an idea of what they wanted, but we prompted people to vocalize what they saw in their head,” said Rachel Lewis, a senior community development major who is in the class.

Lynn Mandarano, the planning and community development professor who teaches the Placemaking course, said the workshop aimed to develop win-win solutions for Kensington residents and property developers.

Kensington residents proposed ideas like parks and community centers while developers proposed options like residential housing, restaurants and a distillery.

“There’s hardly any job opportunities up in that area, and the post-industrial sites are serving as part of the open-air drug market,” Mandarano said. “We saw an opportunity that if we could work with New Kensington Community Development [Corporation] as our local partner to really help the residents there understand the development process, as well as different ideas on how the sites could be redeveloped.”

Mandarano said the lots were selected because of the neighborhood’s extensive post-industrial history that polluted the ground. She said the Kensington area have seen decades of disinvestment that has worsened residents’ quality of life.

In Spring 2016, Mandarano and students in her graduate planning studio worked with the New Kensington Community Development Corporation to spur community engagement by setting up focus groups with Kensington residents.

“Our proposal was really unique in that we wanted to engage the community very robustly, soliciting their ideas, understanding how the vacant land impacted their quality of life and what their ideas would be on how to redevelop these areas,” Mandarono said.

Participants were asked to take pictures of their neighborhood, showing how the vacant lots impacted their lives. Some said they didn’t feel comfortable walking down certain blocks due to things like poor lighting, drug use or litter. They also photographed aspects of their neighborhood or other neighborhoods they liked.

“It was giving them a different way of expressing how they would like to see their neighborhood developed and what kind of public investments they would like,” Mandarono said.

Harrison said the attitude among Kensington residents toward redevelopment is generally positive, but they also have some concerns.

“On the one hand, they’re very excited that someone is shining the light on a neighborhood that’s been bereft,” Harrison said. “On the other hand, they’re concerned about issues of gentrification and that ‘powers that be’ are going to take over their neighborhood and they won’t be heard.”

When starting the project, Lewis said she and other students were worried about being perceived as outsiders coming into the Kensington neighborhood and telling residents what to do.

“I purposely chose the words I used and the way I phrased things in general to show that I’m not trying to tell them what to do,” Lewis said. “This is about what they want. Once someone has decided that you are not in it for their best interests, they might be less receptive to you, so it’s really important to make it clear that you want what people want.”

So far, no developers have been chosen to work on the brownfield lots. Instead, the students are working on creating official conceptual plans that reflect the community’s wishes, which will be shown to developers when a lot is purchased. The conceptual planning project will run through the end of the year.

“The residents of this area get a say in what they would like, and they’ll have a very professional rendering to show what they specifically want,” Lewis said. “Not what’s good for the housing economy, but what they would like.”

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