Edging Out

Urban universities and colleges face unique challenges. Their local landscape waxes and wanes, yet despite the changes, schools remain firmly rooted in the city. “They’re anchor institutions,” explained Armando Carbonelle, chairman of the department of planning and urban forms, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. “As much as they might want to relocate, they find it impossible to do so.”
As today’s urban colleges and universities rethink their place in the city, they shift their mindset from their own narrow needs to the greater public interest. They move from scientific enclaves to drivers of public agendas with great force. According to the ICIC and CEO’s for Cities 2002, urban universities spend about $136B on salaries, goods, and services, which is more than nine times what the federal government spends in cities on job and economic development. It’s estimated in the same study that urban colleges and universities own more than $100B in fixed assets.

“They realize they have an obligation to act in the public interest and think long range,” continued Carbonelle. “And schools can be patient, as their expectations for return on investment are usually longer than a private developer.”

Of course, stabilizing a neighborhood benefits everyone. Crime, bad infrastructure, and other undesirable effects of declining environments hurt a college’s ability to attract and retain students. “Many times not acting will put an institution at risk,” said Carbonelle.

Yet Carbonelle admits that while the benefits of revitalizing blight have “lots of upsides,” risk and market conditions that effect private developers affect schools the same way. “There’s a high degree of complexity involved in projects like these,” he said. “It takes lots of political skill to negotiate with public officials, and making deals takes patience and flexibility.”

The following three schools stepped out of their comfort zone to help shape their respective cities. Each did it in its own way, but share positive results.

University of Illinois at Chicago: The City Leads, the School Follows

Located in the well-known but economically depressed area called the South Loop, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) sits in the center of a $700M mixed-use redevelopment. While the project took the collaborative powers of city planners, private developers, the university, and the community to complete, almost everyone attached to the project agrees, “it was the leadership of the city — from the political vision of the mayor to the technical capabilities of the planners — that created the institutional glue that made the project work,” according to an article in the July 2009 issue of Land Lines by David C. Perry, Wim Wiewel, and Carrie Menendez.

In fact, direct involvement from Mayor Richard M. Daley’s office proved invaluable. “Mayor Daley took a strong role in guiding the project,” said Carbonelle. “So while the University was purchasing the land, the city was driving the process through regulations, eminent domain, and its own prior ownership of parcels,” according to Land Lines. The city also created the largest tax increment financing (TIF) district in history.

The resulting 87-acre project includes housing for more than 1,500 students, 930 units of private residential housing, academic offices, 40 retail establishments, parking, and athletic fields. The UIC owns some 60 percent of the land and properties. The University has also been credited with turning the once dangerous south end of the campus into a vibrant neighborhood.

Johns Hopkins: Stepping Up Despite Themselves
Johns Hopkins has been located in the same neighborhood for more than a century. Immediately north of the school sits the Middle East neighborhood. The two represent a study in opposites. John Hopkins is the largest private employer both in Baltimore and the state of Maryland, yet the people in the Middle East neighborhood claim a high unemployment rate. In the early 2000s one of every four Middle East housing units was abandoned, even though Johns Hopkins owned many of these failing properties. The school did little to maintain the neighborhood or engage the community, even after several violent crimes targeted students and staff.

According to Land Lines, in 1994 the area was awarded significant federal funds for renewal, but by late 2000 only 46 homes were rehabilitated and only one-third of the federal funds were used. Frustrations ran high and the city argued to take over the project. An intermediary — the East Baltimore Development Corporation (EBDC) — was formed from three mayoral and one gubernatorial appointees, two members appointed by Johns Hopkins, two community members, three at large members, and six city and state officials. “This model met the mayor’s desire for control and Johns Hopkins desire not to be in the lead,” according to the Land Lines article.

Monies from multiple streams will fund the 88-acre, $1.8B biomedical, mixed-use project. In the end, there is expected to be 2M sq. ft. of commercial and biotechnology research space, 2,200 new and renovated housing units, a new school, transit stops, and 4,000 to 6,000 new jobs. “The University wanted a secondary role, and got it,” said Carbonelle. The EBDC offers a win/win.

Cornish College of the Arts: Leasing Living Space Two Small Steps at a Time

Sometimes a school only needs to take small steps, like Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. Realizing a need for student housing, yet not wanting to build dorm rooms on their own, Cornish has entered a 10-year lease to convert two hotel buildings within a five-minute walk to the main campus center. “This opportunity to negotiate was too good to pass up,” explained chief operating officer Vickie Clayton.

“Student housing has been a major component of the College’s plan for campus renewal and expansion,” said Cornish College President Sergei Tschernisch. Before these hotels were converted, students lived out and about in the community. Now close to 300 students will take up residence in the large double-occupancy rooms.

“It gives an extra level of comfort and confidence to the parents of freshmen,” said Clayton. “And it helps us stay competitive.” Modest renovations include refreshing paint, carpet, and laundry rooms. The school also added a meal plan to their cafeteria offerings, additional security, and custodial infrastructure, along with a residential life department.

“The opportunity is perfect for us,” continued Clayton. “There may be a building project in our future, but right now I see no downside to the lease for us or the community.”