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Students build on their learning

University of South Florida architecture students head into the community to see what can be done to improve the urban landscape.

James Moore wants his graduate architecture students to learn that there's a whole lot more to their profession than designing pretty buildings.

So Moore, 40, sends them to places like West Tampa. Their assignment is to come up with a plan on how to rehabilitate an urban neighborhood that has seen better times.

After cruising West Howard and West Armenia avenues, viewing rundown storefronts and vacant buildings, student Roberto Crespi, 33, found the whole idea daunting.

"I was a little skeptical. How, through urban design, can you induce social and economic changes?" he asked.

But that is precisely what USF's architecture school is supposed to do.

"When we started in 1986, part of our founding charter was a focus on urban problems," said Moore, who serves as interim director and associate professor. "We lean more toward community projects than individual buildings."

That means exposing students to the challenges of working with government agencies, business leaders, community activists, preservationists _ all the people they'll encounter as architects in the real world.

This led the school to adopt what Moore calls the medical school approach.

"They get some lectures and some labs, but eventually they end up working on real people," he said. "We try to balance the technical and historical with the pragmatic aspects of what you have to do as a professional."

The school has 85 graduate students in its current class. As yet, there isn't an undergraduate program.

Through the school and its adjunct, the Florida Center for Community Design and Research, the students do a lot of projects for local governments.

At the request of the city of Tampa, the center recently finished a study of Tampa's trees. The city asked for an assessment of the economic value of trees and their effect on energy costs, air pollution and stormwater drainage.

The value of the energy costs saved by shade alone, the center estimated, is $2.4-million. Tampa's trees also save the city about $10-million a year in stormwater costs by intercepting up to 15 percent of the rain from a storm.

In addition to collecting data such as that, the center and the school suggest practical ways communities can use the information. From the tree study, researchers suggested developers could be given credit for preserving large areas of trees and be allowed to build smaller retention ponds in return.

For a study such as the one in West Tampa, students start by assessing what strengths the neighborhood has and what its problems are.

"What can bring this neighborhood back as a thriving asset to the city?" Moore said. "If that means historic preservation, that's what we recommend. If it means new businesses, we'll suggest that. If it means housing, we'll suggest ways to get private developers interested.

"I may have my own ideas about what should happen, but I keep those out of it. This is for students to learn. Rarely do their final products match my own preconceptions," he said.

Students are to present their West Tampa findings to community leaders in April or May. So far, both sides are pleased with how things are progressing.

"What they brought out to us already are the positives we didn't even see," said Henry Gonzalez III, president of the West Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

Crespi said the project adds a dose of reality to his academic experience.

"We have to listen to what the client wants," he said. "They are very serious about this. They have their own ideas. It's exposing us to the real issues and letting us meet the people who make the decisions."