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Community Design Centers

Early this year, an abandoned schoolhouse was about to be torn down in the small Massachusetts town of Ayer. Community sentiment rose as residents, forming a group called ''Save Our School'' (SOS), rallied to save the venerable frame building.

In the meantime the Ayer Historical Commission had been exploring alternative uses for the 1890 school building. The group was given the opportunity to present its case for preserving the building to the town selectmen at a meeting held last May.

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Because the commission lacked the necessary funds for architectural design services, members asked the Kronish/Brown CDC (community design center) Studio to prepare a mixed-use plan for the large frame structure. The Kronish/Brown CDC Studio, run by the Boston Architectural Center, is one of more than 40 community design centers nationwide that provide free design and planning services to community groups and individuals who could not otherwise afford them.

''One of the main reasons people wanted to save the building was nostalgia - not wanting to see something in their past die,'' says Ron Laffely, who drew up the plans for the Pleasant Street School project. ''A lot of people in town had gone to the school, and their heart was in the building. When I walked through it with them, they would tell stories about having chemistry classes in the attic and would go down to see their initials carved in the basement. The problem was to find a way to allow the town to hang on to it without putting a lot of money into it.''

Mr. Laffely's plan for the school included studio space for local artists, a day-care center, a dining/meeting hall for senior citizens, and rental housing units. Residents were wary of the provision for rental housing, but the proposal was successful in saving the building for another year while the Ayer Historical Commission studies alternative plans to support the building financially.

In many cities and towns across the country, neighborhood associations, community-service groups, and preservation societies can turn to CDCs when they want to salvage, convert, or restore old buildings and homes. These community design centers provide a wide range of services including planning, design development, technical assistance, and fund raising for local groups.

Many CDCs are run by architectural schools that use endowments for funding and students for staff. Others are independent, nonprofit organizations funded by sources such as community-development block grants, state housing and energy offices, municipal contracts, local foundations, and private donations. With federal funds slowing to a trickle and keen competition for municipal funds, many CDCs supplement their small staffs with volunteers from local architectural and engineering firms.

''We get a lot more requests for services than we can fill,'' says Max Creighton, director of the Community Design Center of Atlanta. ''We try to be responsive to moderate- and low-income groups.''

Like most community design centers, the CDC of Atlanta does the initial planning, design work, and cost estimates for projects requested by community groups. With the preliminary work completed, these groups are in a better position to seek government funding or private financing.

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''We give them a package so they can go shopping for funds,'' Mr. Creighton says.

According to Christopher Clark, president of the Community Design Center Directors' Association, one role of CDCs is to give clout to civic groups lobbying for design-related changes in their communities. Feasibility plans prepared by CDCs arm neighborhood groups with ''flashy tools to present their ideas to city commissions. Without that their view goes unrepresented,'' he says.

''Each design center responds to the particular needs of the community it works in,'' he continues. ''Projects range from single but significant buildings to large-scale urban design projects.''

Assist Inc., the CDC in Salt Lake City, operates an emergency home-repair program for elderly and low-income people.

''This is something rather unique,'' says Mr. Clark. ''Most programs are set up to rehab the whole house. The key here is conservancy of housing stock: It's a lot more cost-effective in the long run.''

In one unusual case, Assist Inc. is helping a senior citizen design and build his own house utilizing windows, wood, and doors he has been collecting for more than 20 years.

In Colorado, the Center for Community Development and Design, run by the University of Colorado, works on about 125 projects each year, ranging from planning a tribal office building for the Ute Mountain Indian reservation to assisting the Hispanic community in Denver to redevelop a nine-block-long commercial strip that has declined over many years.

From its main office on the university campus, the design center operates three offices in Denver and a system of community offices throughout the state, director Michael Smith explains. About 60 percent of the projects focus on small towns, and about 40 percent are urban. In Denver, the offices are in the lowest income areas of the city.

''We want to be where it hurts the worst,'' Mr. Smith says.

For the past two years the well-regarded Chicago Architectural Assistance Center (CAAC), a private, nonprofit CDC, has focused on upgrading or developing facilities for human service activities. Last year, as participants in the mayor's task force were studying the problems of Chicago's homeless, the CAAC studied and made recommendations for improving existing shelters. The CAAC also drafted the Chicago building code regarding shelters for the homeless so as to make the city eligible for federal funds.

The CAAC regularly helps agencies running day-care centers, job-training programs, centers for the elderly, and programs for rehabilitating alcohol and drug abusers.

''These agencies are often in facilities that do not meet their program requirements or city building-code requirements,'' says director John Tomassi.

The CAAC also helps agencies that need to improve or change their facilities to expand their services.

In each case, says Mr. Tomassi, ''every facility we touch I know is better off.''

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