Universities take on the role of redevelopers

Across America, urban university administrators are waking up to the realization that as among the biggest players in their cities’ economies, they have a responsibility to the city around them.

Penn administrators woke up early and other schools have since followed suit.

“Penn and Yale are pursuing similar strategic initiatives, and I think both of us are ahead of the curve in a growing trend of the university being a good institutional citizen.” said Stephen Morand, associate vice president for New Haven and state affairs at Yale University.

Indeed, Penn was one of the first universities to both recognize that the fate of the institution and its neighborhood were intertwined and put together a comprehensive program addressing all the factors that contribute to community stability.

“Our program is broader than anything in the United States,” said Omar Blaik, vice president for facilities and real estate services.

And it has attracted the notice of other urban universities, many of which face similar community redevelopment issues.

One of those schools is Ohio State University, whose community-development team visited Penn in the summer of 2000.

“It’s very interesting to see what’s being done [at Penn],” said Steve Starrett, community relations director at Campus Partners for Community Urban Redevelopment, the nonprofit community development corporation Ohio State established to rejeuvenate the community around its campus north of downtown Columbus. “We talked with University City District [UCD] people, with Penn representatives, and saw Sansom Common [renamed 36th and Walnut].”

The linchpin of OSU’s retail revitalization program is its own version of 36th and Walnut, the Gateway Center, a 7.5-acre mixed-use project which, when completed, will offer office, residential, retail and entertainment space. OSU also wants to create a special services district—known in Ohio as a “special improvement district” (SID)—along the lines of the UCD.

“Our hope is that in the next year or two, we will have an SID in place that does many of the things the UCD does,” Starrett said.

Like Penn and OSU, Yale is also located in an urban area that has had to struggle to maintain its stability in recent years. And Yale has taken an approach similar to Penn’s in addressing the issues facing its hometown.

Yale has invested in downtown New Haven retail properties, including a shopping mall aimed at luring suburbanites back into the city. Yale also offers incentives for its employees to settle in New Haven neighborhoods. And Yale’s president, Richard Levin, has also made revitalizing New Haven a top priority on the institutional agenda.

“It’s fundamental to have presidential leadership, as is the case here and as President Rodin has forcefully and eloquently done at Penn,” Morand said.

A third Ivy school, Columbia University, has also recently intensified its efforts to work with its upper Manhattan neighbors to improve their communities. And several of its initiatives are modeled on components of Penn’s West Philadelphia Initiative.

One of these is the Columbia Housing Assistance Program, launched in 1999, which offers interest-free, forgivable mortgages to Columbia faculty and staff who purchase properties in upper Manhattan, including much of Harlem. Another is Columbia’s efforts to hire local residents and to ensure that local residents, women and minorities are well-represented in the workforce and among subcontractors on its construction projects. Columbia also sent a team of its top administrators to Penn last year to discuss best practices in community redevelopment.

Originally published on January 24, 2002