• A view of Jefferson Square Plaza, which serves as the “front porch” to The Stack. - image courtesy The University of Texas at Austin

Every year, the Urban Land Institute Gerald Hines Student Competition challenges groups of students from across the nation to develop an urban proposal for a thriving, mixed-use, mixed-income development that provides significant community benefits in a way that is economically feasible. The competition simulates a real urban planning and development scenario, drawing together students from various backgrounds to generate creative solutions to some of the nation’s largest urban challenges. 

The competition draws more entries every year and has become increasingly sophisticated. This year, 93 entries were submitted, representing 50 different universities. Among these, a five-person team from The University of Texas at Austin was selected as the winner for its outstanding proposal, The Stack. The team is composed of urban design students Alay Thakrar and Sanket Kamdar, city and regional planning student Sophia Aitken, landscape architecture student Margaret Gallagher, and business student Kent Carlson. 

Beyond providing a starting point for addressing significant real-world challenges, the competition provides a critical educational experience. Collaboration among at least three different disciplines is required, and team members must wrestle with difficult questions that are typically beyond the scope of their academic work, such as economic feasibility and phasing. As Dean Almy, director of the graduate program in urban design at UT Austin, explains, “This competition is really a tool to educate a larger body about the virtues of collaborative thinking.” 

This year’s organizers targeted a four-block site in a disadvantaged neighborhood in Oakland, California, that has suffered due to its adjacency to the Nimitz Freeway. Students were tasked with improving connectivity, providing much-needed neighborhood services, and addressing critical issues of equity and housing affordability. They were also required to incorporate strategies to make the development sustainable and resilient — and they had only 15 days to complete their proposals.

Connectivity, health, and culture are the three central pillars of The Stack, upon which all other elements build. The winning team’s proposal uses new buildings to create a barrier shielding adjacent neighborhoods from the noise and air pollution produced by the freeway. Spaces that are less sensitive to noise, such as artist studios and storage areas, are placed within this buffer zone. Critical health-focused and cultural functions are placed on the opposite side of these buffers, where they are protected from the hazards of the freeway. Buildings adjacent to the highway increase in height incrementally, culminating in a park overpass that allows for interconnectivity, weaving together neighborhoods on either side of the freeway. 

“The biggest differentiator for our project was our attitude on the freeway itself,” says Thakrar. “We proposed that the freeway become a utilitarian transportation hub rather than a focal point for the community,” adds Gallagher. The freeway is 200 feet wide and 15 feet tall, making it a hostile space filled with traffic noise and fumes. “We did not try to romanticize this space…. We understood this freeway as a divisive structure; we understood its scale; and we acknowledged that this is not a nice place to be,” says Aitken.  

Their submission also proposes a strategic three-phase solution to incrementally redevelop the struggling community. Phase one focuses on healing wounds caused by infrastructure and inequality by revitalizing a historic park and introducing new affordable and market-rate housing options. Phase two seeks to turn the site into a destination by introducing a new park and museum. Phase three reinforces connections with neighborhoods beyond their site by incorporating art studios, galleries, and more housing. “To make the pro forma for this project work, we needed to show restraint in the amount of program we were introducing and ensure that every detail really contributes and gives back,” says Carlson. Kamdar expands on this thought: “We started looking at the project not just as a design activity. It became about advocating for the experience, the process, and the story.” 

To make a high-quality proposal, team synergy was critical, especially considering the project’s interdisciplinary nature and short timeline. “The level of collaboration and respect that everyone had for each other is what I think made this project so successful,” says Aitken. Almy adds: “Every student on this team brought this intense energy to the competition. They just pushed each other and pushed each other. I’ve never seen students work that hard.”

Although the competition has ended, there may be future life for this project. The student team will soon present its proposal to the City of Oakland. “One day, this site will be developed,” says Aitken. “Our project provides a framework that the city can keep in mind when evaluating development opportunities. You never know what kind of impact a thoughtful project like this one may have on the real world.” 

Allison Peitz, AIA, is an architect at Lake|Flato in San Antonio.

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