An architect’s challenge usually hinges on the limits of space and scale, but a team of young Virginia professionals has spent the last nine months tackling a very different task: closing Charlottesville’s income gap.
The Emerging Leaders in Architecture program, run by the Virginia chapter of the American Institute of Architects, gives young people in the field the chance to tackle real-world projects. The 2012 group includes 15 participants from schools and firms across the Commonwealth, and has centered its efforts here. In January, they got their challenge: Take the Orange Dot Report, a study of income disparity in Charlottesville that revealed nearly 30 percent of city families are struggling to live independently, and find a solution.
So what’s it like to get more than a dozen architects to solve a social problem?
“Messy and stuttering,” laughed VMDO architect and ELA team member Frances Lengowski. Addressing issues on an urban scale and working outside the box of a single building and site is a challenge—but one the team rose to, she said. Eventually, a dual strategy emerged. They would draw up a plan for a job hub where those seeking work could learn new skills and launch businesses, and brand the idea to raise awareness.
They settled on the IX building, thanks to the interest of part-owner Fabian Kuttner, and started to plan how an empty basement warehouse could become a commercial kitchen where fledgling canning and catering companies could get started. “It’s rough, but it’s wide open,” said Jennifer Rhoades, an ELA member based in Richmond. It’s an exciting space, “because it’s just a shell.”
And it still is. The ELA team’s plans are in final stages, and they’re studying similar projects around the country—employee-owned businesses in Cleveland, a community kitchen in Washington, D.C. After they present their work at a November conference in Richmond, their involvement will officially be over.
But they’ll leave behind much more than drawings and models. Their efforts have kick-started what many hope will be a powerful force for prosperity in the city: Green Dot Charlottesville, a co-op company that will take the job hub idea and run with it.
“The architects sparked a discussion and a realization that this needs to be done,” said Toan Nguyen, an entrepreneur who, along with Kuttner, City Councilor Kathy Galvin, and others, joined the ELA team at the table early on and helped them understand how to address income inequality. Now, they’re spearheading the effort to grow Green Dot into a joint-owned company that can attract investors and serve as a liaison between small, minority-owned businesses and big contractors like UVA.
The anchor is the plan for a home at the IX building, and the practical tools the architects created, from brochure graphics to business cards. “We have momentum here,” Nguyen said. “We have to keep pushing it.”
The project has become much more to the ELA team than diagrams. For Lengowski, the moment that made it real was when a news story on Green Dot prompted a call from a woman looking for a job for her nephew. That’s when it sunk in that the problem they were tackling didn’t just exist on paper.
“It really brought home to me the hope that’s needed to take a step forward,” she said.