University of Pennsylvania's 2.8 million square foot, $800 million Cira Center redevelopment project broke ground in late 2007
An article in last week's Wall Street Journal (EEEEK!!! CAPITALISM!!! SOMEBODY KILL IT!) raised an issue that might seem like old news to residents of neighborhoods surrounding the University of Chicago: Universities have an enormous stake in the economic and social vitality of their environs (WSJ, Nick Timiraos, February 27, 2008).
Universities, increasingly, are extending their reach to off-campus development in an effort to give their surrounding areas and town centers a vibrant and modern feel. In the process, they are becoming major drivers of economic development after concluding that their fortunes are directly tied to those of their cities.
That's been known for decades around here, and not always in a positive way. But what is striking about the new wave of university-driven urban redevelopment is the scale of the efforts on the part of such institutions as Case Western Reserve, Columbia, University of Maryland at College Park, and, most spectacularly, Penn. Also notable is the more recent ability of these institutions to partner with private sector actors to finance their projects.
UM College Park is plunking down $700 million to build an entertainment center (including a hotel!) Case Western Reserve is "developing an arts and retail district in a neighborhood on its campus border", while Penn, which for decades has struggled to hold fast against the forces of urban decline, is orchestrating a $2 billion partnership for "office towers, apartments, a hotel and restaurants" on a 42-acre site adjoining its patch of West Philadelphia already more vibrant than it was a mere 10 years ago.
Penn, together with its development partner Brandywine, "hopes to put a 40- to 50-story office tower and a 25- to 30-story residential tower on the site to complement its Cira Centre development, attached to 30th Street Station."
Safety in depressed urban areas is cited as one reason for many of these initiatives, but the prime mover is the close interrelationship between a flowering University culture and a vibrant city environment. And the impact of this relationship on faculty and staff retention.
[I]nstitutions are recognizing that, along with lucrative financial packages and strong academic reputations, they need to have attractive and exciting college towns to lure top faculty and students.
Although the recent credit crunch will most likely slow down all of these plans, at least in the near term, the era of Universities financing redevelopment out of their own pockets seems to have passed -- at least in the cases cited.
Developers are eager to join ventures with colleges, which they see as providing a steady stream of business. "Universities are fairly reliable partners," says Sal D. Rinella, president-elect of the Society for College and University Planning, who argues that universities are recession-resistant: "As the overall economy gets worse, higher education enrollments tend to go up."
Anything on a similar scale around here would most certainly spark cries of an "urban renewal redux". But would this reaction be justified? Urban Renewal was a federally-funded program; most of these ventures set up some kind of partnership with the private sector, assisted by local municipalities with tax abatements and other incentives, with the overall aim of attracting jobs rather than blocking decay, and of boosting density rather than reducing it.
Projects such as Penn's seem to be geared to bringing in a more diverse job-base, which is something that requires more than building new dormitories. If there's one thing that would help the near south side of Chicago, it would be the addition of several major employers. But more students can't hurt either.
We'll see how the University of Chicago's own South Campus Plan shapes up in comparison to the cases mentioned above. Could Chicago pull off a Cira Center project? Would anyone let it? Does Penn have anything like the "61st Street Pact" made ages ago with Woodlawn neighborhood organizations, by which it penned itself in? And does Chicago have the experience operating as a partner in such large scale projects?
The experience of Drs Hospital -- ill-conceived, ill-received, and ill-pitched -- does not bode well in that regard. But it may be a sign of the future nonetheless.
Time will tell. There is so much university-driven city development going on in America's older cities now that, at the very least, some know-how from these projects may eventually cycle back to the Midway.