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Vision for the Future

A new generation of urban planners unveiled their design-based intervention projects for three troubled D.C. neighborhoods — including two Capitol Hill-area communities — last Friday at the National Building Museum.

The inner-city junior high and middle-school students participated in the museum’s three-month-long outreach program CityVision, which teams participants with architectural professionals building design skills to access troubled sectors. The program is entering its 10th year.

Youths from Stuart-Hobson Middle School, Paul Junior High School Public Charter School and Browne Junior High School presented their findings of three areas — Brightwood/Takoma Park, Benning Road/H Street Northeast and Capitol Hill/H Street Northeast — to parents and a panel of jurists from the architectural and city planning spheres.

Working directly with participating schools, CityVision students meet with their groups on a weekly basis over 10 weeks. This year’s CityVision timetable was shortened to eight weeks because of last fall’s Washington-area sniper attacks. The students’ participation counts toward a variety of subjects involving community service components, humanities and social studies.

“The goal is to have students gain basic design skills, then go out and critically examine the neighborhoods,” said Eilene Langholes, director of youth programs at the National Building Museum. “It’s all about empowerment — [the students] come up with their own projects, present them with confidence to peers, parents and city planners.”

Students first begin by learning how to assess their sector through interviews and neighborhood visits, and then study basic design skills. Using posters and models, the students propose solutions for their assigned neighborhoods, said Stacy Kerr, assistant director of outreach programs for the museum.

Speaking in front of a crowded room, this year’s participants offered their proposal of “Cheetah Heights” for the Capitol Hill/H Street Northeast sector between Third and Eighth streets Northeast. The students characterized the area as “urban and very neglected” because of the riots that followed the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in the late 1960s. “The area never fully recovered,” seventh-grader Roné Dukes said.

With few viable businesses in the area and little entertainment, the students also noticed the need for affordable housing to increase “a sense of neighborhood,” Stuart-Hobson Middle School student Portia Norman said. In an effort to fill the void, the students proposed the “Cheetah Heights” complex, which would combine ground-level stores with family housing units.

Karina Ricks, a member of the jurist panel who works for the D.C. Office of Planning, thought the students had “a good perspective to hear.” She said the District is looking at using a similar design of a seven-story building.

Students who interviewed residents in the Brightwood/Takoma neighborhood found that many people noted the lack of places to sit as well as the need for heath clinics. The group took the approach of using the existing Takoma Theater building as their main source for development. Honing in on the residents’ desire for health care nearby, the students decided to create a recreational center with general health services for all residents.

The group that focused on the Benning Road/H Street corridor found, through interviews with 30 residents, that the neighborhood needed an expanded library, recreation center and mini-mall.

The students noticed redevelopment in the area already beginning and focused on a community area that would be entered by passing through a large red, white and blue gate. Featuring a center that catered to health services, education and an Internet cafe, the students went so far as to brainstorm about funding through government grants, bake sales and telethons.

The jurists were especially impressed with the students’ connection between the analysis of the neighborhoods and their response. “I love the idea of the gate and people wanting to be a part of the neighborhood,” Ricks said.

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