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Community Planning Synthesis Studio Studies Parkside

Graphic from CLAN Synthesis Studio Story Experience

In spring 2014, the MCP Synthesis Planning Studio was co-taught by Dr. John Pittari and Dr. Jay Mittal. This co-teaching arrangement strengthened the learning outcomes of the MCP synthesis studio significantly as several new concepts were introduced. This Studio focused on the ‘Parkside District of Birmingham, AL,’ as the study area. Parkside is next to Birmingham’s famous Railroad Park and a few blocks from the University of Alabama’s Birmingham (UAB) campus in downtown Birmingham. The final year students of MCP were charged to develop a framework plan for the area and develop strategies for the plan while addressing real estate market, investigating potential in the larger Birmingham region and prepare strategies that suite for the redevelopment of the Parkside district.

Since two of the MCP students were based in Birmingham, the two instructors used Skype based distance learning tool to interact with the students while monitoring their progress, reviewing their presentation and even instructing them remotely. Dr. Mittal brought several new initiatives in this synthesis studio, which was very valuable in students learning outcome and final deliverable. Several uniquely new features were added to this co-teaching effort that ranged from first synthesizing their course work, imparting real estate and urban design knowledge, introducing successful TOD and mixed use case studies, mixed use scenario building exercises, introduction to regional and market analysis, healthy cities, form based codes, and finally, real estate pro forma analysis. 

The students were first advised to revisit their Core/ Elective planning courses and to list their learning outcomes in a matrix form. Later, the instructors encouraged students to think how those lessons learned be used synthetically in their final studio work.  This provided students a chance to revisit their course work, review various theoretical and methodological frameworks that they learned during the course work including a roster of tools and techniques useful in the final synthesis studio. Before visiting the site, the students also reviewed the Birmingham’s Comprehensive Plan, extracted key lessons that can be useful for their project area and presented their analysis to the class. This provided them base line information of the Birmingham’s planning context within which they had to work.

Since the focus of the studio was also to provide real estate skills. Students learned Real Estate Market Analysis framework (in a separate Real Estate Principles class taught by Dr. Mittal). As part of the studio, GIS based Business Analyst Online and Community Analyst Online was introduced to conduct demographic, economic and real estate market analysis, identify the key employment locations, growth drivers and trends, and socio-economic and demographic patterns. Students also learned how to develop a real estate pro forma using the discounted cash flow (DCF) methodology.

The students also studied ten successful case studies on Transit Oriented Developments (TOD) and mixed uses and then shared the lessons of these case studies with the class. Students were then introduced to an exercise that focused on developing and analyzing mixed use development scenarios. After assigning a fixed gross FAR for the Parkside district area, a 3 x 3 matrix of various property use scenarios (residential, retail and office) of varying intensity were developed. Using the fixed FRA, from the market absorption perspective, students estimated residential population required to fill the space, number of office jobs required to fill the space, and estimated retail sales dollars that were required for the retail to be viable. This was useful in visualizing the space generated and absorption required.

Dr. Pittari emphasized the importance of urban design, and introduced concepts of healthy and walkability communities including form based codes and how to prepare a regulatory plan including 2D/3D visualization of the above mentioned mixed use scenarios in Maps. The final presentations were organized in the brand new space of Urban Studio before several architects, planners from Birmingham. Two graduating students from the class (Brandon Cummings and Katherine Martin) were also selected and they presented their synthesis project at the 2014 National APA conference in Atlanta, GA.

Synthesis Studio Presentation by Kat Martin APA