Arlington Urban Design Center offers real-world experience for UTA graduate students

Posted Friday, Aug. 16, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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A fire destroyed a two-story building at the Spanish Park Apartments off West Park Row Drive one year ago. But rather than replace the lost units, the owner decided he wanted to transform the empty lot into a safe playground area and tranquil gathering space for tenants.

Turning to professionals to design such a space could have cost thousands of dollars, taking away money that could be spent on the improvements. Instead, the owner found free advice at the Urban Design Center at City Hall.

There, University of Texas at Arlington students studying architecture and urban planning provided the owner with a detailed site plan, including everything from drawings on how to position the playground equipment and shade structures to a list of plants, such as black-foot daisies and buffalo grass, that would best survive without an irrigation system.

The Spanish Park Apartments plan is one of 155 projects — ranging from facade improvements to interior remodels — completed over the past four years by the paid interns at the Urban Design Center. The joint venture between the city and UT Arlington’s School of Architecture and School of Urban and Public Affairs not only provides students with real-world experience but also helps business owners, nonprofit organizations and neighborhoods visualize and map out improvements to their properties.

Those projects have saved participants about $1.3 million in conceptual design costs, city officials said.

“It’s been a tremendous value to us,” said Lyndsay Mitchell, a planning project manager for the city. “We are able to offer this great service free of charge. People can come in and know they can get good work done.”

Center supervisors say the students’ work has included creating renderings to help churches illustrate capital improvement projects as well as drawings of what an exterior building face-lift would look like to help business owners apply for city grants.

The interns are currently working on illustrations to show how new sidewalks, a rebuilt recreation center and library, and the addition of a grocery store could enhance the aging New York Avenue corridor in east Arlington, an area that city leaders are focusing on for redevelopment.

Don Gatzke, UTA School of Architecture dean, said he can tell when students have completed internships at the Urban Design Center because they can more clearly and succinctly articulate their vision for a project and demonstrate creative problem solving. Those experiences benefit not only the students but also their future employers.

“There is a level of professionalism that they acquire here that they bring back to the school,” Gatzke said.

Adding amenities to the Spanish Park Apartments was landscape architecture graduate student Dylan Stewart’s first project. One challenge was to take all the input from not only from the owner but also city leaders and neighborhood representatives and create a space that was inviting, safe and cost-effective.

“Everyone had a different idea initially what they wanted to happen,” Stewart said.

After about a month of discussions, the Urban Design Center submitted a conceptual plan to the apartment owner that includes a fenced-in soccer area and a low-maintenance play area for children, a shaded area with barbecue pits for families and a parking lot, Stewart said.

As with other concepts he has designed during his internship, Stewart will now wait to see if and how this one becomes reality.

Susan Schrock, 817-390-7639 Twitter: @susanschrock

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