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Sunday, February 10, 2019 1:00 am

Urban planner tackling housing

Area grad student puts studies to work

ASHLEY SLOBODA | The Journal Gazette

Brendyn Cyrus grew up in small-town Ossian but is working to tackle complex urban issues in Indianapolis.

And the 22-year-old has about three more months to complete the task.

Cyrus, who is pursuing a master's degree in urban design at Ball State University, is one of three graduate students serving as Indianapolis City Fellows within the Department of Metropolitan Development's long-range planning team.

The position, which advertised an $8,000 stipend, began in November and ends in April. The program is funded by a Community Block Development Grant.

Cyrus learned of the opportunity through Justin Ferguson, director of the Master of Urban Design program at Ball State.

Ferguson said in an email he recommended Cyrus apply because his background in urban planning principles would be helpful and work well with the new skills he would learn through his studies.

“Brendyn's professional demeanor, which is extremely important when sending a student to work with community stakeholders, and his expressed desire to work on such issues, made him the ideal candidate for this opportunity,” Ferguson said in the email.

Cyrus wasn't sure what to expect but describes the work as interesting.

“As a group, we have been tasked to study the affordable housing crisis that has struck Indianapolis, like almost every other city in the United States,” Cyrus said.

Initially, Cyrus planned to study architecture at Ball State but said he changed his focus as an undergraduate student after being exposed to – and falling in love with – urban planning.

Cyrus said that discipline offers more opportunities to interact with others compared to being a desk-strapped architect.

Cyrus enrolled in the graduate urban design program knowing he didn't want to go straight into “strictly policy work,” he said.

An urban designer oversees entire projects whereas an urban planner would be among the people involved in a project led by an urban designer, he said, describing urban design as a field that makes community visions come to life.

It's about ensuring elements of a city are developed so the community is efficient economically, environmentally, socially and culturally, Cyrus said. The work can involve collecting input from various people, including real estate agents, architects, engineers, children and senior citizens.

“It's a very important profession,” Cyrus said. “It's not talked about because people don't know what it is, but we live in it every day.”

Indianapolis encouraged graduate students of all disciplines to apply for the City Fellows opportunity. A Ball State student studying urban and regional planning and a student in IUPUI's media arts and science program were also selected.

Cyrus, who previously interned with the Madison County Council of Governments, is confident he and his colleagues will complete their affordable housing task before deadline.

They are specifically addressing a residential option Indianapolis OK'd a few years ago – accessory dwelling units, Cyrus said.

In Indianapolis, he said, such homes must be built on top of a garage or shed on developed lots where a single-family home already exists.

The city fellows are working to address barriers and restrictions in the zoning ordinance as it applies to these units to make it easier to develop this housing type, Cyrus said.

“These are grad students who tackle complex urban issues for the city,” Andrea Watts, spokeswoman for the Department of Metropolitan Development, said by email. “They recently gave a presentation to an advisory panel on investing time and money into accessory dwelling units and livable alleys.”

The three hope to include more leaders in their efforts.

“We're really trying to get some City-County Council people involved in the conversation because they're the ones that have the power to help make decisions,” Cyrus said.

Such real-world experience exemplifies the types of opportunities Ball State seeks to provide students, Ferguson said.

“This type of collaboration, with the city of Indianapolis Department of Metropolitan Development, is an example of why Ball State University's College of Architecture and Planning has an off-campus location in Indianapolis housing the Master of Urban Design Program – so that we can provide impactful opportunities for our students while serving as a resource to the people of Indianapolis and beyond,” Ferguson said.

asloboda@jg.net