As you know, I prefer free, open-source software and data. Thus I recommended QGIS rather than ArcGIS, and Blender rather than Rhino, 3DSMAX, or other CAD-derived modeling software.
I am sticking with QGIS for this semester, and we may need to arrange some lab sessions so that I can help you learn to use it however you want to use it. Also, maybe a lab session on GIMP if enough people are interested in learning intensive image-processing. However, I am dropping Blender for this semester, for two reasons.
Most importantly, Blender was not designed for architectural modeling. It can be done, but it is difficult to switch the dimensioning-system in Blender feet and inches. It may seem backwards to stay with feet/inch rather than go to metric, but frankly I am not going to fight that battle this spring. Secondly, the interface for Blender is REALLY complex, because the program is designed to do many more things than we want to do this semester. We are going to do some basic modeling, maybe some nice color. If you want to take our proposed neighborhood design and turn it into an actual video-game, you can export the 3D model from SketchUp, bring it into Blender, and have fun! But for the moment, let’s just get some basic 3D modeling done.
SketchUp Make 2015 is the current free version of the software. Since this produced by a private company (Trimble), they will ask you to register and try to persuade you to buy the commercial version for $590. There are many, many tutorials on YouTube for this software, including 58 short videos from Trimble. I recommend starting with the first 4 intro videos, which are less than 10 minutes each.
Yesterday was the first day I used SketchUp, and I have built most of the model for the apartment building on Natoma Street where I used to live.
Several things to note from this screenshot: 1. The interface of SketchUp is quite simple. However I was able to do a lot of modeling, with considerable detail. 2. I have only created the outside-shell of the building, because I am trying to keep the file-size small.
Since there is a very large user-community for SketchUp, you should be able to solve technical problems through online searches. Furthermore, there are tens of thousands of SketchUp building models available. I am going to browse through them to see if I can find good examples of the sort of building-types and housing-types you might want to use. Please feel free to do the same! We can tailor the models to suit our needs, and the ideas you come up with for the North Bayshore setting.