UI students design house to help revitalize East St. Louis
EAST ST. LOUIS - Signs of hope are springing up on a neglected street in East St. Louis, thanks to hard work by neighborhood residents and some University of Illinois students.
A block that until now had only a smattering of homes amid vacant lots will soon see a half-dozen new houses, including a unique contemporary design by a UI architecture class.
Construction began last week on the two-story home created by Professor Osman Ataman's senior design studio. He and his students will travel to East St. Louis' Alta Sita neighborhood in late May, on their own time, to help with the project.
After a feverish year of design and redesign to fit the prescribed budget - and the buyer's wishes - students said they're happy to see the work get under way.
"I would call it a learning experience," said senior Tom Stroka. "Everyone's so glad they did this. This is something that's going to help the community. Everybody's gotten something out of it."
The project is an outgrowth of the UI's East St. Louis Action Research Project, a community assistance and development program. Since 1990, faculty and students have worked with residents and community organizations in distressed areas of the city to spruce up parks, build homes and work on other projects.
Supporters say it's been an important part of a growing neighborhood revitalization movement in East St. Louis, which has seen its population stabilize at 31,000 after a half-century of decline.
Ataman and his students began working with Alta Sita Neighbors Inc., a nonprofit group, last year on plans to redevelop a 4-acre site on the southern edge of the city into contemporary single-family homes.
That project will take several years, so residents agreed to have the class design a house on a different street in the same neighborhood - McCasland Avenue, between 27th and 29th streets - a mostly vacant block where the association already owned a number of empty lots and planned to build five houses this spring.
Ataman's students divided into teams to draw up plans for their house. All were contemporary, and ambitious, with some price tags approaching $300,000.
The winning design was chosen for its simplicity and relatively modest cost, initially estimated at $120,000. That was still beyond the $100,000 budget set by the neighborhood group and developer Don Johnson, a UI alumnus.
So the students set to work cutting costs. The house was reduced from 2,000 to 1,500 square feet. The master bedroom shrunk. Windows became smaller. The stucco exterior was replaced with a less expensive concrete fiberboard that avoids problems with expansion and contraction.
One of the central challenges, said graduate student Tebogo Schulz, was choosing between designer touches and practicality. The students concluded they could do both.
"It's been a real creative process," Schulz said.
Eventually, after consultations with Johnson and the buyer, the flat roof was replaced with a more traditional pitched roof, and an open-riser staircase - a focal point of the interior design - was enclosed to provide more safety and storage.
Still, the home is striking compared to others in the area. It has the standard three bedrooms, a bath and a half, full kitchen, dining room, family room, laundry room and garage. But that's where the similarities end.
"It is a unique design for the community. There's really nothing similar to it," said Johnson, who is building several other houses on the block, all "traditional suburban style."
The open floor plan on the UI house consists of two rectangular blocks, joined by a central hall and staircase. Visually, right angles predominate, with vertical rectangular windows and contemporary lines.
"We tried to do something different," said graduate student Kasey Kluxdal. "It does give a sense of individuality."
Johnson said buyers initially had some reservations. But he was confident it would sell.
"I love the house. I like clean lines. I like modern," said Helen Hudlin, president of Alta Sita Neighbors Inc. Students were able to preserve many of their design ideas, but the outside still "blends in nicely" with the rest of the block, she said.
Ataman said his goal was to give "real life relevance" to his students' work. Most agree they got it.
"One of the biggest things we learned is how in real-world projects, your dreams don't always come true," Stroka said. "You have to work with reality, with the concerns of the client and construction feasibilities. It's really been a challenge."
The house is partially funded with a $30,000 Housing and Urban Development grant, which added some constraints.
"This is real-life stuff. This is how it is," Johnson said. "When something doesn't work, you have to go back and redesign it. If the dollars don't work, you have to go back and make adjustments."
Schulz, 24, is grateful for the chance to see his architectural ideas put to use in an area that needs them. Born in Botswana, where his parents worked for the Peace Corps, Schulz grew up close to East St. Louis in nearby Alton and knew all about the city's reputation as "the crime capital of the world" in the 1980s. After getting a bachelor's degree from the UI in 2000, he worked for the East St. Louis Action Research Project for nine months and then joined a St. Louis-area architectural firm for two years before returning to the UI for graduate school.
"Ever since I've gotten to college, I've been interested in working in distressed communities," he said. "The people here need architecture more than other areas do."
Stroka, who is from Western Springs, had been to East St. Louis before on a work weekend for his youth group. But he was shocked by the dilapidated buildings, burned-out houses and empty lots in many parts of the city.
Still, he said, "The people who live in the neighborhood are quite involved in the community. There's a lot of pride in the neighborhood. People work, and the family unit is very strong."
Alta Sita is mostly residential, with an elementary school, Catholic church and a park. A section of McCasland, known as Virginia Place, was once a comfortable middle-class neighborhood, with a wide boulevard and stately homes with carriage houses.
But like much of the city, the neighborhood began to decline in the 1960s and '70s. Fed up with a run-down house next door to hers on Virginia Place, Hudlin, a retired teacher, decided to take action. She cut through municipal red tape, bought the lot and got the house torn down.
"I decided I had to either move or do something, because my block was going down house by house," she said.
Together with other concerned neighbors, Hudlin organized the nonprofit association in 1995. The group redeveloped a number of blocks in the area, buying and renovating older homes and acquiring empty lots to build new ones with Community Development Block Grants and builders like Johnson. It also won infrastructure improvements from the city, such as repaved streets and new lights. Ataman calls her a grass-roots "hero."
Hudlin's philosophy is simple: If you eliminate derelict houses and empty lots, keep streets clean and cut down on crime, "you have a neighborhood."
Most Alta Sita residents are senior citizens, but the hope is that the new construction will draw more young people and families to the area, said UI senior Marcus Cross. Work has al-ready started on four other homes on the block, and the as-sociation renovated several others with the UI students' help.
"We see it as a cooperative thing," Hudlin said. "That's valuable training and experience the students are getting. We're all cooperating, and we're all getting something. It's a win-win opportunity for all of us."
You can reach Julie Wurth at (217) 351-5226 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.