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UAlbany, Albany Law Students Partner to Tackle Urban Blight

Students from the UAlbany/Albany Law class "Law & Urban Innovation: Creative Problem Solving" presented their findings online to City of Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan and her staff.

ALBANY, N.Y. (May 19, 2020) – Urban blight, as identified by vacant lots or buildings in disrepair, represents one of the most challenging issues confronting any city. For students in Albany Law School-University at Albany shared course “Law & Urban Innovation: Creative Problem Solving,” their main goal was to examine the issue of blight in New York’s capital city, and the strategic investments required to fix it.

With the city of Albany as a living lab, the students worked in cross-institutional teams to identify and design innovations, with the goal of assisting Mayor Kathy Sheehan and her team as they strategize investments to combat blight. Using the city of Albany’s equity agenda as the framework, students studied federal and state efforts that have had a longstanding impact on cities like Albany and identified and researched strategies aimed at moving neighborhoods out of blight in an equitable and sustainable way.

Recently the group of 11 students from Albany Law School and Rockefeller College virtually presented their findings to Mayor Sheehan. Their semester long project set forth many insights including a review of how other cities apply an equity lens to neighborhood investments, exploring the use of real property legal proceeding article 19A to take ownership of properties, defining the policy, management, and funding considerations of an emergency repair program, and repurposing vacant properties to greenspaces, all of which have a proven track record of mitigating the impact of blight.

Albany Law UAlbany course on Urban Blight
With the city of Albany as a living lab, the students worked in cross-institutional teams to identify and design innovations, with the goal of assisting Mayor Kathy Sheehan and her team as they strategize investments to combat blight.

As a critical component of experiential learning, the students (Laura Jurewicz, Jessica Haller, Bethany Alfeld, Pablo Jimenez, Andy Enila, Thomas Baines, Alexis Young, NyKai Rigaud, Hilary Edmunds, Andrew Ellis and Casey Girvin) met weekly with key staff from May Sheehan’s team — Deputy Corporation Counsel Robert Magee, Assistant Corporation Counsel Jared Pellerin, and Neighborhood Stabilization Coordinator Samuel Wells.

“My Neighborhood Stabilization Team and I thoroughly enjoyed collaborating with the students in the Law & Urban Innovation: Creative Problem Solving course," said Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan. "This course was mutually beneficial as it allowed the students to use Albany as a live model providing potential ideas to combat blight in our city. The strategies suggested focused on mitigating blight in an equitable and sustainable way, keeping in line with my goal to make Albany a city where every neighborhood works.”

“Giving students the freedom to work with city leaders while testing assumptions and offering new ways of thinking is at the heart of this course,” said Meghan Cook, program director at the Center for Technology in Government, adjunct professor at Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy UAlbany, and course co-instructor. “The interdisciplinary approach, of both law and policy, allows the students to bring forth a new perspective to issues many city leaders are facing today.”

“We have been holding this joint class since before the formal affiliation between Albany Law School and the University at Albany was made official,” said Ray Brescia, the Hon. Harold R. Tyler Chair in Law and Technology and professor of law at Albany Law School and course co-instructor. “Every year the students knock it out of the park and provide innovative ideas for addressing problems city leaders face, ideas that will make an impact on life in the community. This year was no different, and the student work was carried out despite the challenges that the pandemic posed. But the students did an amazing job and the work they did is going to make a difference.”

“One of the reasons I applied to Rockefeller College’s Graduate Certificate program was for the program’s emphasis of on-hands experience and application of the skills we learn in the classroom,” said Nykai Rigaud, who recently completed his master’s degree in Criminal Justice at UAlbany. “The Law & Urban Innovation course gave me the opportunity to work in a team with colleagues of different disciplines and perspectives, as well work with Albany’s city leaders, to recommend potential solutions Mayor Sheehan in the City of Albany’s effort to remove blight from neighborhoods.”

The topic was particularly important to Rigaud important to because he was born in St. Albans, Queens in New York City, and where urban decay remains a problem.

“There are many blighted neighborhoods in all five boroughs,” said Rigaud. “Presenting an emergency repairs program tailored to removing blight from neighborhoods to Mayor Sheehan was an experience that made me a part of contributing solutions to problems bigger than myself, and that will stay with me.”

“The ability for myself, being a undergraduate student, the chance to take a graduate level course that dealt with this important issue dealing with blight, in the City of Albany, is an experience I will not soon forget,” said Andy Enila, a senior from Worcester, Mass., studying public policy & management with a concentration in technology and policy. He was especially drawn to the fact that students would be responsible for researching and designing innovative and positive approaches to bring real change to the community.

"This was undoubtedly one of the most rewarding academic experiences I have ever had,” said Thomas Baines, a second-year student at Albany Law School. “The opportunity to work alongside city leaders, then present our findings and recommendations to Mayor Sheehan and her team was a student’s dream. The notion that our work will be seen as a positive contribution to the future of the City of Albany is incredible."

“When I first registered for this course, I was not sure what to expect from collaborating with a different institution,” said Alexis Young, a second-year student at Albany Law School. “But working alongside fellow students with different educational paths is what made our report and presentation so well rounded, because we all had so many different perspectives, and where one of us lacked knowledge, we would all work together to understand and learn from it.”

Young was drawn to the opportunity to provide guidance to Mayor Sheehan and her staff on how the city can continue to improve and work for all members of the community in remediating blight.

“Working with Mayor Sheehan and her staff has certainly been one of the highlights of my law school career, and I look forward to seeing the city continue to grow and hopefully utilize some of the recommendations we provided,” said Young.

The course was made possible through the University at Albany/Albany Law Affiliation, which is designed to advance the Capital Region’s role as a leader in higher education and innovation by creating powerful synergies to tackle issues critical to the local community, New York State and the increasingly complex world. The partnership has produced exciting collaborative academic programs, expanded services for students, and resulted in operational resource-sharing and cost savings.

“The University at Albany/Albany Law Affiliation facilitates such collaborative opportunities and it was exciting to see the passion the students brought to this topic and the evidence–based recommendations they made to the City of Albany,” said Ann Marie Murray, Vice Provost for Program Development & Strategic Initiatives, Service Professor at the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

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About the University at Albany
A comprehensive public research university, the University at Albany-SUNY offers more than 120 undergraduate majors and minors and 125 master's, doctoral, and graduate certificate programs. UAlbany is a leader among all New York State colleges and universities in such diverse fields as atmospheric and environmental sciencesbusiness, public health, health sciences, criminal justice, emergency preparedness, engineering and applied sciences, informatics, public administration, social welfare, and sociology taught by an extensive roster of faculty experts. It also offers expanded academic and research opportunities for students through an affiliation with Albany Law School. With a curriculum enhanced by 600 study-abroad opportunities, UAlbany launches great careers.