When Town Meets Gown

American cities and towns are undergoing unprecedented revitalization, and small colleges and universities are playing major roles in that revitalization.

Reinvestment in urban America during the past decade is attributable to a number of trends: overbuilding in the suburbs, smart growth policies that focus development in existing urban areas and renewed interest in living downtown that reduces commutes and provides convenient access to cultural, retail, sports and entertainment venues.

During this time, a number of small colleges and universities have embarked on ambitious off-campus development projects that are serving as catalysts for economic development within their communities.

College as Entrepreneur

Rollins College has recently completed the development of a large mixed-use project facing Park Avenue, the retail main street of Winter Park, Fla. The first building to be built downtown in the past 25 years, the project has served as a catalyst for renewed economic activity downtown; new retailers like Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn have located in shops along Park Avenue.

For years the college had made use of the site as an off-campus surface parking lot for students, relieving the pressure of securing additional parking on a campus surrounded by residential neighborhoods. As economic conditions improved in the Orlando market during the 1990s, the college recognized the potential value in developing the site as a mixed-use project that would provide a long-term revenue source in addition to much-needed student parking. To execute the business plan, the college hired the Faison Company (recently merged with Trammell Crow) to serve as development advisor. The resulting market studies yielded the plan for a low-rise, mixed-use development that includes ground-level retail, multitenant office space on the upper floors and an adjacent 850-car parking garage for tenant, customer and student parking.

The project generated some controversy during the early design stages. Community activists feared that the development plan would overwhelm the intimate village scale of Park Avenue and weaken Main Street’s unique sense of place and ambiance. A bland, strip-window office building had been built on the avenue 25 years ago, and residents were fearful of another inappropriate design. Don Martin, director of community development, notes that residents believe strongly that any proposed projects must be in keeping with the community’s character.

The final design for the Rollins College project, approved unanimously by the town’s Architectural Design Commission and City Council, raised hopes in the business community. Christened SunTrust Plaza to recognize the building’s primary tenant, the Rollins project has been well received by local business leaders and other community supporters. Ground-level retail tenants line Park Avenue, upper-floor tenant space is fully leased and a distinctive, recessed landscaped courtyard marks the main building entrance. An adjacent four-story parking garage recently won Best Parking Garage of 1999 from the Precast Concrete Institute for its community-sensitive design.

Rollins College has retained Trammel Crow to provide building management services for the complex as the college now moves into the position of building landlord. The long-term strength of the local retail and office market is expected to remain strong. However, the college has made provisions for converting the second and third floors of the project to institutional use should conditions change. During construction, telecommunications wiring was laid, providing future technology systems connections with the nearby campus facilities. Today the college is building on its recent entrepreneurial success by developing another adjacent downtown parcel for institutional and office uses, adding to the downtown revitalization.

College as Town Planner

Since it was established 101 years ago, Lafayette College has been an integral part of Easton, Pa., just 30 miles north of Philadelphia. As the town’s commercial and residential districts expanded, the college was eventually surrounded with development. Finding itself landlocked, with little open space on campus remaining, the college has embarked on a program of expanding into an adjacent downtown commercial district that was underused.

Lafayette College’s off-campus development strategy includes the redevelopment of an 11-acre commercial area that is envisioned as a new urban village. The first phase of the masterplan involves the revitalization of a one-block section of Third Street, the major pedestrian and vehicular campus entrance. Anchoring this block is a fine arts facility that is evolving through adaptive reuse of an existing two-story warehouse located across the street from the campus. The goal of the college in this phase of development is to revitalize the block, which will contribute to the quality of life in the downtown for students and residents.

The long-range plan developed by college masterplanners creates an urban village focused on Third Street and the Bushkill Creek, which passes through a site area that encompasses six city blocks of industrial, commercial and residential uses. The plan calls for districtwide redevelopment that will provide retail, restaurant, office and residential uses through a combination of urban infill buildings and adaptive reuse of existing buildings. The college is also considering the site for future student housing as an enclave of the new urban village.

The city of Easton stands to benefit significantly by the college’s community investment. While the town is economically stable, there appear to be few new initiatives available to the city that promote downtown growth and revitalization. Like many towns and cities of the northeast, Easton has experienced a decline in economic activity as retailers, businesses and residents have left town for the suburbs. However, a small resurgence in retail and office tenants and the recent completion of a highly successful museum complex provide evidence that Easton is on the path to economic renewal.

Lafayette’s off-campus plan is a timely initiative for a private institution. The next step for the college is to develop the necessary partnerships with city government and private sector companies to translate the goals of the masterplan into a program of action. A key aspect of the plan is that it can be implemented incrementally through a projected 10-year time frame.

College as Catalyst for Revitalization

Baltimore’s famed Inner Harbor development has transformed the once-industrial harbor into a waterfront playground offering retail, restaurants, cultural and entertainment venues that provide year-round activities for residents and tourists. At the same time the downtown central business district has experienced an overall decline in retail and office uses as economic development has remained focused around the waterfront. One area hard hit is the city’s groundbreaking urban renaissance district of the 1950s: Charles Center.

No longer the vibrant heart of the downtown envisioned by civic and government leaders, Charles Center’s image has been tarnished by retail and office vacancies. Further, the Johns Hopkins School of Continuing Education, a significant part of the Charles Center area for 20 years, was considering relocating to other parts of town, citing concerns about the future of the district and the need for larger facilities. The future for the district looked bleak until key businesses, property owners and the city came together to establish a redevelopment plan. A building currently being renovated for Johns Hopkins serves as the cornerstone of this effort.

As planned, the college will occupy a portion of a former department store that once spanned a street bordering Charles Center. The structure spanning the street will be demolished, reconnecting the street to its surroundings. The remaining building will house college facilities including a ground-floor cafe and bookstore that will provide pedestrian-friendly ground-level uses.

Referred to as a "beacon in the night" by the design team, the four-story building will feature a glass-enclosed entry pavilion facing the adjacent street intersection. Landmarking the corner will be an electronic reader board that the college will program with community events information. Recent groundbreaking ceremonies enabled city and college officials to celebrate Johns Hopkins' renewed commitment to Baltimore’s downtown.

Partnerships Are Key to Success

As these examples demonstrate, the economic boom of the 1990s has provided opportunities and benefits to colleges and their host communities. "Town and gown" relationships are being redefined as colleges and local city governments pursue community investment partnerships. The goals are mutually beneficial: economically healthy host towns translate into desirable quality of life for both residents and students. Such environments provide colleges a competitive advantage in recruiting students. Through the next decade, creative town/college partnerships will intensify as the "college campus village" concept is expanded in appropriate locations.

Jim Leonard, AIA, is an associate vice president with RTKL Associates, an international architecture and planning firm headquartered in Baltimore.