When Gown Builds Town: Schools That Do Good Business

As the business of higher education becomes more and more competitive, many schools are finding that it is expedient, and even necessary, to mend the legendary rift between "town and gown" that has prevented schools and their communities from working together in the past. To do this, colleges and universities are building facilities that help schools to forge better relations with the communities around them. Such efforts, in turn, mean better business for American colleges and universities that are geographically, socially and economically integrated with the towns and cities that they inhabit.

As college campuses have grown, they have increasingly encroached on neighboring properties and towns and caused some degree of community concern, depending on the size and function of the facilities. Recognizing that their futures are joined as much by economics and demographics as by territory, institutions and their local communities are launching initiatives which are designed to break down the boundaries of difference in the interest of shared goals. Rather than raising fears, the process of planning and design for these academic projects shows how development goals and local interests can be effectively fused.

Many, if not all, of our recent educational clients have been proactive in terms of building strong relationships with their local communities in ways that go far beyond traditional outreach efforts. Today's ventures are more ambitious and reflect public-private development models. From Dartmouth College to Pennsylvania State University, schools across the country are working in collaboration with public, nonprofit and/or private clients to develop sites on or near their campuses. These projects are mutually beneficial for schools and their neighborhoods, whether they are as small as a single building or as big as a master plan.

One effect of such innovative and strategic arrangements is that projects are more efficient, more cost effective and, therefore, more feasible from an economic point of view, as costs and management are shared. Yet, financial benefits are only one outcome. These efforts have the potential to alter the perception of institutions within their neighborhoods and accomplish long-term urban design and community goals in cohesive and comprehensive ways.

The Rewards of Financial Risk

When Dartmouth College purchased a prime site on Lebanon Street behind the school's Hopkins Art Center, they saw it as "an opportunity to do things that were beneficial to us and the town," explains Paul Olsen, Dartmouth's director of Real Estate. Because the campus is integrated with downtown Hanover, New Hampshire, Dartmouth was eager to help fill a "missing tooth" -- a former bank property next to an awkward municipal site that was slated for a parking garage. Eager to help the town's parking problems and maintain its civic quality, Dartmouth offered to help Hanover develop the two sites as one, resulting in a three-story retail and office building over an underground garage that is linked to an above-grade parking structure next door. The town got a larger number of parking spaces than would have been possible, given the physical constraints of their original site, and Dartmouth got a better building with more usable space.

Jointly developed projects, such as this, can provide alternate sources of funding to institutions who need it. In this case, Dartmouth helped the town to solve a traffic issue and even pitched in money to clad the concrete structure with a handsome brick fa├žade when the town was cash-poor. Still, Olsen insists that the rationale behind Dartmouth's mixed-use building and parking garage "wasn't about economics," because "Dartmouth had larger goals in mind."

In other cases, combining resources allows for the construction of projects that would not be otherwise possible for schools and/or community organizations. This was the reason that the founder of Squashbusters, Greg Zaff, approached Northeastern University to build an exercise and educational center for his inner city youth program that encourages academic achievement through the practice of squash. Not wanting the responsibility of owning and managing his own property, Zaff sought a development partner to build a facility that would consolidate the program's activities, which were concurrently staged in a YMCA, Boston's Harvard Club and Harvard University. Working in partnership with Northeastern, Zaff raised the $6 million needed for construction of the three-story athletic complex, while university administrators agreed to donate the land and maintain the building in exchange for use of the athletic facilities during off hours.

A Shared Mission

Like Olson, Zaff argues that economic issues were important, but not the only goal of the project. Northeastern University "just made sense," he explains, because it is located in the community from which he draws about half of his students. "We wanted to find a strong financial partner whose mission was aligned with ours," and Northeastern fit the bill. (It helped that Northeastern's president, Richard Freeland, was an avid squash player.)

Socially oriented projects like Squashbusters can often dovetail with a university's mission, especially urban universities that are located in underprivileged neighborhoods. Beyond its stated programmatic goals, Squashbusters also gave administrators a chance to upgrade the quality of their urban campus by placing a bold, contemporary building on a small site between a playground and an unattractive parking garage.

Collaborating on the project was a way for administrators to extend their local outreach efforts and cultivate future students from grade school to college. Northeastern, like Squashbusters, has an exceptionally strong tradition of partnering with the community. Its initiatives range from the development of new housing that meets mayoral objectives to engineering grants for young women who might not otherwise have the chance to attend college. This commitment is what Christine Phelan, Northeastern's assistant director of Communications, calls the school's policy of "urban engagement" which is "a great compulsion to be a good neighbor to Boston's inner-city community."

The Good Neighbor Policy

Although "success" can be defined in many different ways, we at CBT have found that academic projects are most successful - economically, socially, civically -- when they have a neighborhood presence that reaches out and uplifts.

Academic projects can also be good partners because they reduce barriers between towns and the edge of campuses, which are often at odds. Take the example of a much smaller school than Northeastern: Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, developed a new arts and administration building on a municipal urban renewal site and, in so doing, revitalized a campus and city edge. In effect, Bowdoin invested money in building an arts facility that opens the door of the campus to the surrounding community and serves as a needed catalyst for future development.

Bowdoin was seeking to engage its surrounding community, create better access and build a better urban environment for its neighborhood as a whole. Projects can also stretch local urbanistic goals from a campus onto a community. When we designed an 800-student residential quad at Penn State called Eastview Terrace, we were trying to reduce the barriers between the campus and the town of State College. The site planning is porous, with numerous points of penetration that welcome the community onto the campus, including a grand, central stair that reaches out to a private student housing complex across the street. The university also worked with the town to add parking and enhance the pedestrian orientation of the project, making it safer and more welcoming.

Good Development Means Good Business

Although Penn State primarily wanted to satisfy the growing demand for on-campus housing, the impact of Eastview Terrace is far greater than its effect on the urban environment. This particular project indicates where a business decision by Penn State -- to build more housing -- is more than the sum of its parts. By creating better housing options for upperclassmen, it allows Penn State to retain the kind of students who are mostly likely to seek housing off campus.

According to Tom Gibson, Penn State's assistant vice president of Auxiliary and Business Services, another "happy offshoot" is that Eastview Terrace will help to mitigate safety and responsibility issues that often cause conflict between a school and town. Through the years, as local developers began to build private housing for college kids, families were forced out, causing the city's tax base to shrink. Gibson explains that Eastview Terrace "takes pressure off the town services, such as police and trash collection, that were overwhelmed by students." By building some of the first new residence halls since the 1960s, Gibson is glad that Penn State is starting to reverse this trend and is providing the opportunity to change the local housing market back.

Beyond CBT's own practice, examples of good development are plentiful. Yale University has offered economic incentives that encourage their employees to buy real estate in New Haven in order to promote economic regeneration and neighborhood improvements that benefit both the town and gown. Administrators at Ohio State University are hoping that the South Campus Gateway, a five-building project, will help to regenerate the neighborhood as much as it helps to grow the school. More ambitious is a new master plan by Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., that coincides with the school's 125-year anniversary and major development projects that are keyed into the city's renaissance. The city, for its part, is making street and parking improvements with Creighton's master plan in mind.

In the final analysis, these projects show how institutions are expanding their horizons in ways that help their educational missions and their communities. More and more, they are proving that educational achievement is allied with civic investment and that even one good building can go a long way.

Charles Tseckares, FAIA, and Christopher Hill, AIA, are partners at CBT/Childs Bertman Tseckares Inc., in Boston.