For Good: USF architecture students put urban design to work for St. Pete nonprofit

Raised crosswalks to slow traffic, sleek contemporary buildings with lots of windows and natural light. Attractive interior courtyards with plants everywhere. An expanded community garden. Classrooms, a library and small retail shops.

These were just a few of the innovative ideas proposed by graduate students in the University of South Florida School of Architecture & Community Design. Their task? A complete redesign of Faith House Florida, a St. Petersburg nonprofit recovery program celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

“We started in late January and ended a few weeks ago in early May,” says architectural student Oscar Barnes, of the class project that offered students an opportunity to take their ideas out of the classroom and into the community.

Twelve students in a class led by Josue Robles Caraballo, USF visiting assistant professor in architecture, paired up in teams of two to develop six long-range master plans for the organization.  

A place of refuge for recovery

Since the 1970s Faith House has provided a structured living environment for people recovering from substance or alcohol abuse, veterans reintegrating into the community and individuals after incarceration.  

In addition to daily recovery-based programs, therapy for residents includes working in the onsite community garden and tending to the rabbits. The Nomad Art Bus, a full length bus packed with art supplies, provides art sessions for residents twice a week.

“Faith House is a safe place for people to come, regroup and heal,” says Rebecca Russell-Gootee, Executive Director. Individuals can stay for up to a year. The program has the capacity to house 60 people at one time in the four existing buildings on campus. One of the buildings is over 100 years old. All are outdated and in need of constant repair.

There are other challenges as well.  

Faith House is located in a part of downtown St. Petersburg considered downtrodden and crime-ridden. Hundreds of homeless congregate nearby at the large homeless shelter and daily food program operated by St. Vincent De Paul South Pinellas. Next door is Unity Park, a half-acre city park that is the scene of drug activity.

That’s a big concern, says Tom Shay, president of the Faith House Board and CEO of Profits & Plus Seminars.  

“Faith House residents are at a fragile stage in their recovery and they are surrounded by an environment with many temptations. We’re right there in the middle of ground zero in St. Petersburg,” says Shay. “We needed a new vision that could get us beyond our immediate needs to help us see where we could be in five years or 10 years, and what opportunities we could participate in as we go forward.”

Seeing the big picture

The hope is that the students’ design can be the game-changer that could help transform the facility, as well as the surrounding neighborhood, says Emmanuel Roux, a Faith House board member and owner of Gateau O Chocolat

“Collaborating with USF was a great opportunity to use the energy of the students to envision a completely new future for Faith House,” says Roux. “The students’ master plan designs can get the community thinking, what if. It’s really about tackling some very pressing concerns in our community.”

City of St. Petersburg’s architect Raul Quintana suggested Faith House board members turn to the USF School of Architecture & Community Design for help. Professor Robles Caraballo agreed to take on the task as a class project. And within a short period of time, he was so impressed with the program that he joined the board of directors himself.

“Faith House has created a fantastic program that gives people a fighting chance,” says Robles Caraballo. “They have an amazing staff and group of volunteers who show up every day wanting to make peoples’ lives better.”

To get started on the project, architectural students -- Matthew Levitan and Shelley Beitzel; Danielle Barozinsky and Stephanie Ezell; Hala Barakat and Oscar Barnes; Manuel Alvarino and Samir Berjawi; Cesar Reyes and Alexander Martinez; and Jesse Eliassen and Nicole Harner -- spent months interviewing Faith House residents and board members. 

They looked at the existing campus buildings and the surrounding environment. They envisioned how to include Unity Park into the redesign. And they were asked to consider other elements, such as possible onsite employment opportunities for residents and the possibility of creating an onsite Vet Center to provide counseling services for military veterans.  

Design as a catalyst for change

One of the most important goals was how to better integrate Faith House with the larger downtown St. Petersburg community and make the campus more public friendly, while helping reduce crime in the area.  

“The project was about designing new buildings for Faith House residents and staff, but it was also about how design could be a catalyst to generate a healthier community and how to shape the organization for the future,” says Robles Caraballo.

The students’ ideas were diverse and creative.

A site plan designed by Barakat and Barnes features an expanded Faith House community garden, redesigned Unity Park and retrofitted shipping containers as housing. Large crosswalks slow traffic in the streets. An open air market on the Faith House campus would serve as employment for residents, and possibly people from the nearby neighborhoods.

“”It felt great to be creating something beautiful and sustainable for people in need, while working with a low budget,” says Barnes. “It was amazing to be part of the project and to use architecture to help the residents,” says Barakat.

Levitan and Beitzel used recycled materials throughout their design -- old bricks from existing Faith House buildings, reclaimed wood from various sites throughout the city and donated shipping containers as housing.

“Using recycled materials was almost a metaphor for us since Faith House is about giving people a second chance,” says Levitan.

Eliassen and Harner’s idea incorporated a work-live concept with an urban farm, a retail component with small shops and workshops where residents could make everything from furniture to art.  

An added touch -- trellises for growing herbs and edible plants are placed everywhere throughout the campus. “I like creating a space that someone would want to inhabit and having greenery everywhere would not only be healthy but serve as a healing space,” says Eliassen.

The students’ designs were presented to the Faith House Board of Directors in late spring and then showcased in a presentation at [email protected]. They are currently on display for public viewing at the first floor gallery space in Priatek Plaza, downtown St. Petersburg’s tallest office tower.
What’s next? While the current class is completed, Robles Caraballo will oversee a group of students who will combine various elements of the different site plans into one master design to be reviewed again by the Faith House board.

“The good part is all of the plans have been designed in phases, so we could potentially start soon,” says Faith House Executive Director Russell-Gootee. “We hope to begin a fundraising campaign some time in the near future.”

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.
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