The City Is Their Laboratory


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.

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.

“Everybody in that room was kind of angry with the Bloomberg administration’s plan to drop an emerald city in-between Flushing and Corona,” says Lander. Past that resentment, however, things aren’t so clear cut. A large part of the Pratt Center’s job is to help figure out what community members want for Willets Point, but there’s conflict between Iron Triangle businesses, who reject any plan to displace them, and residents of surrounding neighborhoods, who want to make sure new development would include opportunities for them.

“People feel a desperate need for affordable housing, they want good jobs, and they want less-crowded schools,” says Lander. “So if development at Willets Point were going to give them those things, they might be enthusiastic about it.

“Obviously those are both genuine Queens-rooted community perspectives. Of course, they’re different ones, so we’re trying to figure out how to deal with that.”

Getting to play a part in weighty, real- world matters is a major factor for students like Justin Kray.

Working construction for his father in and around Boston, where he grew up, Kray saw firsthand the disparities in housing conditions for the area’s rich and poor. Deciding to pursue a graduate degree in planning, he looked at schools from Harvard to the University of Washington before choosing Pratt’s three-year city and regional planning program, in large part because of the Pratt Center for Community Development.

“It kind of has its hands in the soil, so to speak, in keeping inner-city neighborhoods viable,” Kray says. “I just wanted to jump in, and that was what Pratt allowed me to do.”

Ryan Sharp is following a similar path. With a bachelor’s degree in public administration from Florida International University in Miami, Sharp narrowed his search for a graduate school to the University of Pennsylvania and Pratt Institute, settling on Pratt because of its academic philosophy as well as its location.

“If you want to get involved in urban studies, New York is the mecca for that, at least in North America,” says Sharp, who will enter Pratt’s city and regional planning master’s program this fall. “Pratt has a practical focus in their urban planning program. They encourage going out in the community and actually learning how to do things and galvanizing people.”

Sharp knows something about community involvement, having spent some of his time in South Florida writing for a development and transportation blog called Transit Miami. He hopes to get familiar with street-level New York through the work of the Pratt Center, where he has applied for an internship.

“What I like about Pratt Center is they don’t necessarily focus on traditional preservation techniques,” says Tauber. “It’s more about preserving the feel of neighborhoods, rather than individual buildings.”

Pratt Center interns go on to work for government planning departments, private planning firms, nonprofit developers, or other public-interest groups. Most are students at Pratt Institute, but others come from different schools, both inside and outside the city. Hunter College offers a similar program, the Center for Community Planning and Development, with recent studio courses analyzing the controversial Atlantic Yards project and developing a plan for senior housing in Williamsburg.

“Whatever kind of professional planning career you have, working in diverse communities, seeing things from a range of perspectives, and coming to appreciate this kind of public interest and social justice work more deeply, is valuable,” says Lander. “People find that there’s opportunities to incorporate that perspective into their work wherever they are.”

For her part, Tauber wants to put her Pratt experience toward a position that integrates public planning and preservation. She’s particularly interested in working in areas of the city not commonly considered aesthetically important.

“It feels more rewarding to bring these types of issues to communities that aren’t thinking about it quite as much,” Tauber says, “because their places are just as valuable as everyone else’s.”

Since many of its staff also teach at Pratt Institute, Center projects regularly carry over into graduate coursework. Planning and historic preservation students often come together in studios, where a neighborhood such as Cypress Hills serves as a real-world lab.

“Even if you never set foot in here as an intern, you might have a faculty member who’s bringing what they do in the Pratt Center into the classroom,” says Laura Wolf-Powers, assistant professor and chair of Pratt Institute’s Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment. “The center could not do the work that it does in the community without the students.”

Looking for places to put affordable housing, Kray found a record shop,crouched beneath the elevated J train, that sells Burning Spear on vinyl.

photo: Willie Davis/Veras

Their contributions aren’t confined to New York. Summer studios are held in Panama, where this year students worked with local professionals and civic groups to save an ecologically unique area from suburban-style development. Meanwhile, the center is coordinating a project funded by a $266,000 Federal Housing and Urban Development grant to help plan and develop “model blocks” in post-Katrina New Orleans.

The grant represents a portion of millions of dollars in HUD funds issued through the Universities Rebuilding America Partnership, a program established in November 2005 to engage colleges and universities in rebuilding the Gulf Coast. Over a hundred students are involved in the work, which has encompassed 10 studio classes over one and a half years. The students’ findings will be submitted to Pratt’s client in New Orleans, the nonprofit ACORN Housing Corporation, which assists low- and moderate-income home buyers.

“They are turning out a professional product,” says preservation specialist Vicki Weiner. “That was a rare opportunity to do something quite intensive and with a big, big scope.”

Both Kray and Tauber worked on the New Orleans project, with Kray spending a summer there. “In New Orleans, the feasibility of developing anything was challenged by larger unanswered infrastructure questions—inflated construction costs, and a bankrupted populace,” says Kray. “Whereas in New York, time is of the essence.”

Kray was so taken by his New Orleans experience that he is considering moving there to start his own construction company, one he envisions evolving into a neighborhood-scale version of Habitat for Humanity.

“It’s one thing to have the idea, to promote it and talk about it, and to try to get other people excited about it, but eventually you have to have someone still build it,” Kray says. “I’m going to go down there and investigate that possibility.”

Closer to home, Lander names the South Bronx, Staten Island, and City Hall as sites of Pratt Center successes. The Center teamed with community groups to clean up the Bronx River, building a greenway and reclaiming the area for public use. In the West Brighton neighborhood of Staten Island, where the Markham Gardens public housing development was to be demolished and replaced without tenant input, the Center is helping negotiate agreements with the City Housing Authority to grant current residents a say in redevelopment plans, as well as a right to return there to live. And though Lander says much more could be done, efforts by the Center to promote affordable housing through inclusionary zoning and tax incentives have garnered support from the City Council and the mayor’s office.

Among the Center’s other projects is a critique of Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030, which the academics are offering in hopes of narrowing the livability gap between the city’s rich and poor in a time that promises—or threatens—to be a period of unprecedented growth.

“There’s no doubt that because of all the development taking place in the city there’s more public and popular attention to planning,” says Lander. “What do we mean by growth? How should it be shaped? Who should it benefit? I definitely see more people in New York grappling with those questions.”

Back in Cypress Hills, Kray speculates that its remote location and historically weak economy have kept the neighborhood relatively intact.

“People have not had the desire or the resources to tear down and rebuild,” he says. “It will be interesting to see if it remains this safe haven of affordability.”

Adds Tauber, “If you get an idea of how you want your neighborhood to be, you’re ahead.”