The City Is Their Laboratory

Pratt students invent the next New York—for real.

Justin Kray recently spent months walking around Cypress Hill, Brooklyn, carrying a camera and a clipboard. Kray was scouting vacant or underused lots that might be suitable for affordable housing. His efforts were at once an academic pursuit, a righteous cause, and, apparently, an alarm bell for a vibrant, gritty neigh- borhood with reason to fear creeping gentrification.

"This lady was just marching down the street cursing me out," Kray remembers. "I tried explaining what I was doing, but her ears were glued shut. She thought I was a developer."

Not quite. Kray was working toward a master's in city and regional planning at the Pratt Institute. A private college of art, design, architecture, and library science, Pratt is based in Clinton Hill, with an outpost in the Village and a satellite campus in Utica. Since its founding in 1887 by oil magnate Charles Pratt, the school has nurtured a who's who of former students and alumni, including Chrysler Building designer William Van Alen, artist Robert Mapplethorpe, cartoonist Joseph Barbera, and actor Robert Redford. Tuition and fees for a full undergraduate course load are $29,900 annually, with graduate credits ranging from $850 to $1,070 per, depending on the degree. Along with the classes and writing of papers comes an opportunity for real-world experience.

Cypress Hills is a mash-up of cozy residential lanes and chaotic commercial strips.
photo: Willie Davis/Veras
Cypress Hills is a mash-up of cozy residential lanes and chaotic commercial strips.

Kray canvassed the streets of Cypress Hill alongside Lacey Tauber, who'd happened upon Pratt's two-year historic preservation master's program while looking into an advanced degree in communications design. A native of San Antonio with a bachelor's in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin, Tauber took planning courses as an undergrad and had covered planning issues as a reporter— sufficient experience to pique her interest in preservation, particularly after relocating to New York.

photo: Willie Davis/Veras
"Living in New York, you think about urban planning a lot more than in most other places," she says, "so it really drew me to the program."

Established just three years ago, the preservation program remains experimental. "They're able to be really creative with the types of classes that they offer, everything from public history to issues of sustainability and downtown revitalization," says Tauber, who graduated last spring. She also likes the program's emphasis on involving the community in decisions.

Planners, students, and neighborhood types connect at the Pratt Center for Community Development, where Tauber and Kray worked as interns. Founded in 1963 and housed on the Clinton Hill campus, the Pratt Center is billed as "the first university-based advocacy planning and design center" in the United States. Today, the center is a nexus of public-interest problem solvers, and its expertise—drawn from a team of architects, urban planners, preservationists, and policy experts—is sought by communities citywide.

The nonprofit Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, for example, enlisted the Pratt Center to help find places for affordable housing. That's a typical assignment for an institution that finds itself in the thick of the battle for the next New York City, as neighborhoods like Cypress Hills brace for the expected influx of a million new New Yorkers in the coming decades.

"Sometimes I just say we're a think-and-do tank, and sometimes I say we're a cross between a think tank and a pro-bono community consulting firm," says Brad Lander, director of the Pratt development center since 2003. Lander's graduate degrees in planning and social anthropology epitomize the center's meld of technical skill with an ethos of community activism.

Employing a staff of 16, plus anywhere from five to 13 graduate student interns working for wages or course credit, the Pratt Center receives funding from the city, foundation grants, and, to a lesser extent, client fees. The public backing makes it possible to work in New York's poorer neighborhoods, many of them already wrestling with development issues. Lander's predecessor, Ron Schiffman, who helmed the Center for its first four decades, is now conducting its effort to help reconcile competing visions for West Harlem in the face of Columbia University expansion plans.

In many instances, gentrification is the primary concern of neighborhood groups that call on the Center. In others, it's extinction. Such is the case with Willets Point.

Caribbean and Central American immigrants dominate this working-class Brooklyn neighborhood, the latest in a series of multiethnic waves to settle here since European farmers arrived in the 17th century
photo: Willie Davis/Veras
Two years ago, the Pratt Center joined forces with citizen groups in Queens looking to ensure that much-needed residential development included low- and moderate-income housing. Eventually the groups, about 20 in all, coalesced into the Queens for Affordable Housing Coalition (QFAH). Hoping to get ahead of an expected development boom, Pratt and QFAH got involved in planned rezonings in Woodside and Jamaica, inviting residents to take part in a "community visioning" process. In August 2006, the City Council unanimously approved a rezoning of over 100 blocks in Woodside, limiting maximum building heights while allowing developers to build at higher densities if they set aside 20 percent of the residential space for affordable housing. The plan was hailed as the first example of "inclusionary zoning" in Queens, and was trumpeted by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Then came news of the city's latest effort to redevelop Willets Point, also known as the Iron Triangle. Soon to be in the shadow of the new Mets stadium, the 75-acre industrial pocket is home to a polluted and unsightly, though functional, village of mostly auto-related businesses. The city wants to redevelop Willets Point with a hotel and convention center—possibly through eminent domain. In response, Queens community groups have scheduled a series of public workshops, facilitated by Pratt Center student interns. The first, held in June, drew some 200 people to a church basement in East Elmhurst.

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