Architecture Projects Would Build Community

WARREN, Ohio – Their designs incorporate housing, retail, grocery stores and recreational opportunities aimed at revitalizing the southwestern section of Warren.

Third-year Kent State University architecture students in associate professor Bill Willoughby’s class began studying the neighborhood, much of which is depressed, this fall.

Willoughby, who teaches in KSU’s College of Architecture and Environmental Design, says his students are seeking to answer two questions: how to build community support and how to empower a neighborhood that’s been economically suppressed.

“Because whenever we build new buildings, it is to better our communities,” Willoughby says. “I think that is a really important thing.”

Students presented their concepts during a community meeting Dec. 6 at Second Baptist Church, A House of Hope.

Warren Mayor Doug Franklin, who attended the final meeting, says the church is a fitting location to have the presentation. “Our goal overall is to turn this into a city of hope,” he says.

The plans aim to revitalize portions of the Quinby and Jefferson neighborhoods in southwestern Warren. The area is bordered by the Mahoning River and state Route 45 (Tod Avenue).

The class focused on the neighborhood because of its proximity to Lordstown, the river and downtown.

Students looked for ways to better connect the area regarding traffic and transportation and explored ways to engage institutions.

The work fits well during architecture students’ junior year because that’s when they study external factors that affect building, including land and social conditions.

Willoughby says the students’ designs center around social justice, community empowerment, centers for building skills, tool and technology centers, libraries, retail, affordable housing, access to healthful food, entrepreneurship, outdoor recreation, ecosystem restoration, community and family-based support and outdoor recreation.

“These were not only some of the percolating ideas of our students but they were reinforced through a series of workshops,” Willoughby says.

The 16 Kent students worked on an area plan in groups of four and then independently developed concepts within the area.

Students Elizabeth Barker of Niles, Sara Kahwaji of Akron and Mason Holcomb and Abbey McElhaney, both of the Pittsburgh area, worked together on one area plan.

“Collectively, we thought of the neighborhood as a whole and we all chose to focus on different needs that we thought the neighborhood would benefit from,” McElhaney says.

Holcomb’s portion would address the food desert problem of the neighborhood. “There’s not a grocery store within a mile radius around the area,” he says. “I propose this idea of actually growing food onsite.”

His concept includes greenhouses, an apple orchard, a grocery store, pharmacy and a small bank branch for a one-stop facility.

Barker’s concept is a generational connection center, McElhaney proposes a tool tech exchange hub and Kahwaji’s idea combines residential and retail space.

The students developed the concepts based on their visits to and study of the neighborhood as well as questionnaires completed by residents.

“Our previous meetings with the community really shaped our form and program in order to try and benefit it best,” McElhaney says.

Barker says that by engaging with the residents, the team learned about interacting with customers.

“All the years previous, it was just in the studio,” she says. “This is more real-life experience and learning from it.”

McElhaney says there was a theme from people who attended the workshops and completed the questionnaires of a desire to stimulate a sense of community and growth.

“It feels like everyone wants that,” she says. “There’s hope. There’s potential in this community to grow. It’s just what’s going to get the ball rolling. We hope this project can stimulate that.”

Warren is fortunate to have the architecture students use it as a classroom and provide ideas “so we can think outside the box,” Mayor Franklin says.

It’s ideal timing too, he says, pointing to development in downtown Warren and the jobs coming to Lordstown through the Ultium Cells plant and other companies.

“My job and some of my goals here are to find funders for some of these great projects,” Franklin says.

The Rev. Todd Johnson, Second Baptist Church pastor and Warren 1st Ward councilman, agrees.

“We couldn’t ask for a better spot to look for investment, especially after decades of not seeing as much as we’d like to,” he says.

Willoughby says some questions the students considered are how to turn disillusionment into betterment and betterment into hope and imagination toward the future.

“One of my jobs as an architectural educator is to spark the imaginations of the students. But that can’t happen in a vacuum,” he says. “That imagination has to be sparked by the community.”

Students Akeen Booker of Columbus, Lydia Caines of Michigan, Carl Rak of Cleveland and Hiba Meskini of Akron developed plans they hope would accomplish that.

Booker says he was struck by the optimism in the area but noted that the area has lacked attention over the years.

Rak says the idea was to restore the neighborhood from the inside out rather than having improvements engineered by outside forces.

“We really wanted people to come to Warren and stay in Warren instead of working in Warren and living outside of Warren,” he says.

Rak’s project design is a culinary incubator. It’s a culinary school and shared kitchen space available for entrepreneurs or to be rented out for events.

“Its goal is to allow people from Warren to have a path, to have a career in the culinary world and it gives them the opportunity to start a business if they want,” he says.

The idea was to focus on what the community wants and needs, Caines adds.

“It’s about prioritizing the residents that are already here and building projects that pertain to their needs,” she says.

The students learned from residents that they need more in the neighborhood than the housing that’s available, Caines adds.

A grocery store, a gas station, bus stops, libraries, a swimming pool and desirable housing are some of the elements residents said they want in the neighborhood.

Caines’ design, called Quinby Flats, includes mixed-use commercial space on the ground level with affordable housing on the upper levels.

The housing units provide the
privacy of separate living units but also build community through shared spaces.

Booker’s project is a cultural center that would be close to the Trumbull County Community Action Partnership.

“It would be kind of an economic hub for the area,” he says.

Andrew Arunski of Mayfield developed a concept he calls The Iris, an eco-cultural center, that incorporates the Mahoning River.

“The Iris celebrates the ecological history of the area as well as the cultural history of the area,” he says.

The building would feature plaques detailing historic events that occurred in the city. The rest of his design would highlight the flora and fauna of the area.

“It’s having a tangible experience with nature and with people because of the building,” Arunski says.

Pictured at top: Andrew Arunski, an architecture student at Kent State University, designed The Iris, an eco-cultural center, for the southwest neighborhood of Warren. The KSU students designed their concepts after meeting with residents in the area.