Monday, March 3, 2008

Universities as Urban Redevelopers


posted by chicago pop


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.

26 comments:

LPB said...

For what it's worth, my cousin's eldest child just decided to attend Columbia over the University of Chicago partially because he liked the urban setting of Columbia.

As I've mentioned in a previous comment on this blog, I lived in West Philly back in 1986-87 (shortly following the MOVE fiasco) when that neighborhood was at an extremely low point in terms of safety, development, and relationships with residents. Then, I moved to Hyde Park in 1988. In the ensuing 20 years, Penn has been able to revitalize West Philly, raise public safety, and add amenities for folks in the neighborhood. During that same period, Hyde Park's parallel evolution has been downright pathetic.

As an aside, if the other universities have been shelling out tens (if not hundreds) of millions on development projects, I feel like the roughly $3 million U of C is ponying up for the new Treasure Island is a bona fide bargain.

Zig & Lou said...

$3 million for Treasure Island from the UofC? (long, low whistle) What are they getting for that large, round, dollar amount?

Elizabeth Fama said...

Psst, I think it's more than $3 million. Hey, Chicago Pop, didn't Deep Throat place it closer to $5 million, after buying out Certified, etc.?

No interference from community members regarding future business decisions: priceless.

Zig & Lou said...

I do so look forward to pushing a gold-plated shopping cart (or will there be shopping cart valets in tuxedo t-shirts gently pushing my cart?). Wait, even better, hover-carts.

chicago pop said...

As cool as hover-carts would be, you shouldn't get your hopes up, Z&L; those millions were bail-out costs, the price of escorting the old Co-Op and all its problems to the door. They're not going towards gold-plated anything.

So, from one perspective, it's a deal, as lpb observes. Especially since the end result may considerably improve the neighborhood vibe and livability factor. From another perspective, it's pretty small fry, in comparison with some of these other projects.

Elizabeth Fama said...

I'm not terribly versed in the south campus plan (or in urban planning, for that matter) but I'm disappointed in the University's planning skills in the hospital/biological sciences corridor on the west edge. There is no campus feel in the 57th and Drexel area (my childhood home was at 5651 Drexel, now demolished)-- there is no quad, no walkability, and no friendly orientation of the buildings with respect to each other; just massive buildings right to the edge of the sidewalks, making 58th Street, 57th Street, Drexel, and to some extent Maryland and 56th Street seem like isolated urban canyons. And without small businesses in the area, there's no reason for employees to get outdoors, other than to go to their parking lot. Similarly, students attend classes and immediately head east, with nothing to cause them to linger.

chicago pop said...

Yeah, you definitely get the sense that they're cramming as much stuff as possible into that corner of the neighborhood. That's not quite the kind of market-oriented redevelopment I was thinking about in the post, but it does affect the neighborhood and it is development.

In my experience, the science/tech/engineering parts of most campuses usually seem more like physical "plant" than part of a "campus," with all that the distinction entails in terms of atmosphere and safety, and not just at Chicago. But one does wonder if the imperative demand for space could have less of an impact if it were allowed to be distributed more broadly -- say, across the Midway, or if better design in the Drexel/Maryland/57th/56th quadrant might have made that area something more than the kind of scary place it seems to be turning into. Even labs might ought to have a more humane interface at street-level. (Libraries, too -- I can't think of another quadrangle that is as dead as Crerar. A cafe that is above ground (ohmygod!) and facing the street would make it much less dronish over there).

I think Northwestern did a really good job stitching their new hospital buildings into the grid of Streeterville, so it is possible.

Zig & Lou said...

Insightful comments about the hospital/biological sciences corridor . In my previous business, we were approached to open a cafe/deli operation in the Center for Integrative Science building (utilizing the second floor food service space; the public space for dining/relaxing is a terrific atrium space in that building). Alas, we never heard anything further from the U.

Greg said...

And without small businesses in the area, there's no reason for employees to get outdoors, other than to go to their parking lot.

Elizabeth, you're forgetting about Sammy's! :-)

Elizabeth Fama said...

The way I understand it, the new building that's going up on my old block (5600 block of Drexel) "had" to be built on that spot (rather than across the street, where the Univ. already owned all the buildings) expressly because they wanted to design aerial walkways between the three science buildings. It seems to me that planning it so that people never have to leave the safety of their buildings is a sure way to make the streets unsafe.

Greg, you're so right -- Sammy's Touch (5659 S. Cottage Grove) totally escaped my radar. It must be new since I lived in the neighborhood. The Internet reviews all mention the fat content, which is something U of C hospital employees don't need.

Other than that I think there's a prosthetics store and a newstand. (No more Bulco gas station with Good Humor ice cream bars, though. [Now, that dates me.])

Greg said...

Bulco gas station? :-O

Sammy's is in there with the prosthetics store and the newsstand is out on the corner. I guess you could grab a double cheeseburger, have a heart attack and stop off for a Tribune on your way to the emergency room. Now THAT'S convenience!

Good points about the lack of shopping in that corner of campus. I just hope they don't tear my apartment building (with the super cheap rent) down to build stores. :-/

A good candidate for a quickie mart location would be that physical plant garage at 56th and Cottage Grove. Right across from the tennis courts and 1/2 a block from the football field. Just sayin.

chicago pop said...

I guess you could grab a double cheeseburger, have a heart attack and stop off for a Tribune on your way to the emergency room. Now THAT'S convenience!

LOL

This is almost as good as Edj's Harper Court redesign playgroup (the one with the petting zoo).

Alex said...

Can any of you think of a neighborhood 8 miles from the loop, and without convenient access to the EL, that is the sort of happening, trendy neighborhood that you seem to want hyde park to become?

Comparing the U of C and HP to Columbia and Morningside Heights is unfair. It's in Manhattan, which as a whole has experienced far heavier development in the past decade than the South Side of Chicago. Second of all, the 1 train stops directly adjacent to the main quad and runs 24 hours a day to nightlife and business centers of manhattan and brooklyn. We've got the 55 and the 6. The 6 is great for commuting but a pain at night, particularly if coming back late from other parts of the city. The 55 and red/green line are so slow they can be enough to dissuade one from leaving Hyde Park to go to (and thus, others coming to Hyde Park from) other parts of the city. Thirdly, the student populations in both neighborhoods have important differences. While people gripe about the scarce nightlife offerings in the neighborhood, even Jimmy's, the most popular Hyde Park bar, is rarely bursting, even on weekends. Is the demand really there for Hyde Park to be Wicker Park? If the notorious/much-lauded academic seriousness of U of C students weren't enough, the different housing situation may explain some things. As most of us turn 21 in our third or fourth year, we also move into apartments, while Columbia students stay in cramped dorms. Most Hyde Park student apartments, regardless of the state of repair, usually have sizeable kitchens and living rooms. My friend's dorm at barnard had 1 one common room/kitchen and housed 5 people, I believe. I may be wrong, but it seems to me this would mean U of C students party in their apartments, whereas Columbia students venture forth into the vast world of New York nightlife. There are about twice as many Columbia students (25,000) than U of C'ers (12,500). I don't know much about the case of Penn, but I do know that it's got twice our undergraduate population (9,700) and a slightly larger graduate population (10,000).

Which is not to say Hyde Park could never be a center of street life and entertainment. In fact, it was, up until the 1950's, when bars and music venues lined 55th street, and there was a sizable artist population situated around 57th street. The University was, of course, key in the removal of both of these from HP.

Zig & Lou said...

"Can any of you think of a neighborhood 8 miles from the loop, and without convenient access to the EL, that is the sort of happening, trendy neighborhood that you seem to want hyde park to become?"

Well stated. It seems that a clever group of independent business people (mixed in with some forward thinking national brands), an open-minded University real estate department, and a rational group of local residents could exist together, the businesses thriving and the residents enjoying the diversity of a broad spectrum retail culture, all this, with the University benefiting from the improved atmosphere for the student body, faculty, and staff. I know, this is much like contemplating 'what if Spartacus had a Piper Cub'. Still, a pleasant day dream.

chicago pop said...

Alex, I'm not sure I understand your point.

Comparing the U of C and HP to Columbia and Morningside Heights is unfair.

Whether the comparison is fair or not is not the issue. Columbia was one of several examples presented by the Journal in evidence of a trend, one of a handful of schools in urban areas that are making concerted efforts to turn their neighborhoods around. Whether this case maps on to Hyde Park exactly is not the point. If Columbia is less illuminating in comparison, so be it; but it's part of a larger trend that may come to include the University of Chicago.

Both in terms of scale and geographic/demographic comparables, I think the example of Penn's Cira Centre project -- or other projects undertaken at Case Western, or even UC College Park -- is provocative in terms of what a truly ambitious redevelopment plan might look like, and how it might be done. Any of these example may indeed be more relevant to the U of C than Columbia.

If you want a close example of this being possible in a neighborhood roughly similar to Hyde Park, look at downtown Evanston. The L does not service it efficiently, but it has a direct Metra link, is even further from downtown, and is now the hub of the North Shore.

Most of this post dwells on the Penn example, and for reasons that have to do with Penn's willingness and experience to engage in public-private partnerships -- not just to make their environs "happening and trendy" -- but safe with more jobs and residents than they now have.

Elizabeth Fama said...

Aren't we 6 miles from the loop?
--Elizabeth, the geographically challenged copy editor.

Alex said...

I overestimated. There are 8 blocks to a mile so Hyde Park is between 6.5-7.5 miles from the Loop.

I compared U of C to Columbia mainly because it's the urban university I know the most about besides here. Anyway, development in that case has generally not been creating new jobs so much as it has been about gentrification. University-driven development does this to make the university a more desirable product and its environs more desirable investments.

Now I'm not against any and all investment or change in Hyde Park. But there's good change and bad change. The expansion of HP Produce? Inventive uses of space like Istria that invigorate street life? Good (despite the bright orange Crocs). But the proliferation of sterile, empty bank branches on 53rd street at the expense of unique local businesses? The consolidation of vast swathes of the neighborhood by one decidedly less-than-transparent or competent out of town investment holding company? Development is one thing but we don't need to turn Hyde Park into another plastic yuppie spawning ground like University Village.

chicago pop said...

But the proliferation of sterile, empty bank branches on 53rd street at the expense of unique local businesses?

I agree that too many bank branches are not desirable. However, I don't believe this is a feature of gentrification and indiscriminate yuppie development. It is happening all over the city. In fact, this is what you get when you don't have "unique local businesses" to bid out the bank chains. It's easy to say "keep the local businesses", but in fact we don't have that many because we don't have a large enough market to support them nor enough entrepreneurs to take risks locally.

Instead, we have consumer needs that aren't met, stores that don't meet them, and vacant storefronts on top of it all. I think if there were in fact more unique local entrepreneurs willing to create those unique local businesses, there might be less pressure for the change that many want and others find threatening.

The consolidation of vast swathes of the neighborhood by one decidedly less-than-transparent or competent out of town investment holding company?

Whether something is out of town makes no difference. Corruption is a "unique local business," after all. But I'm curious to know what the disadvantage is to a company with deep pockets like MAC coming in a renovating Hyde Park's dilapidated housing stock is. It's much needed, no one has done it yet, and I don't see any local firms lining up to try.

Is it preferable to leave many of these old walk-ups, and some vintage high-rises, which have been deteriorating in some cases since WWII, in the hands of multiple owners and one or two large ones who have not demonstrated a record of decent upkeep?

The argument has been made by some that the great architecture that we are familiar with from the pre-WWII period, and much of the housing stock, was built by the period equivalent of "investment holding compan(ies)" that had the financial staying power to stick around and nurture long-term development, instead of building cheap, selling for a quick profit, and taking off.

It would seem to me that, given the preferences you describe, this would be what you want, in stead of multiple smaller developers interested in a quick flip resulting in flimsy product (not that these developers are interested in HP anyway, since the market is too small). HP needs investors who are confident about the future and willing to make long-term investments. If that takes an out-of-towner, I have no issue. Chicago was almost entirely financed by New York banks from the beginning.

chicago pop said...

Development is one thing but we don't need to turn Hyde Park into another plastic yuppie spawning ground like University Village.

I agree, but I don't think this is a realistic prospect. University Village was planned, built, and populated in the same time that Hyde Park got a new Starbucks and a bowling alley. We're in a different universe. Even if the University partnered on a fairly major redevelopment project nearby, the changes in Hyde Park (that would be welcome by many who are not yuppies)would have to be reckoned against the benefits to neighboring communities that have been losing jobs and population for decades.

In today's Metro section of the Tribune, the fatal shootings of 3 teenagers are detailed, all within several miles of Hyde Park. They need development over there more than we do; but by blocking it here, we're making it harder to happen anywhere on the south side.

I'm not sure that's a reasonable trade-off to preserve the status quo.

Ben said...

Great post C-Pop! It's interesting to see what other Universities are doing to redevelop struggling neighborhoods. It's almost as if they want to bring in outsiders...weird. A quick related question to the Penn situation: I remember someone nominating the Community Affairs rep from Penn to replace Hank, does anyone have any insight into this? I haven't heard anything on his replacement.

A little on the northwest corridor of campus: C-Pop's assessment of the status of typical science corridors is spot-on. Let's remember that this is really a Medical Center. Usually these are not so intertwined with the undergraduate campuses and are represented by steel, glass, and concrete, rather than the typical brick, stone, and grass of undergraduate campuses. In most cases, the space wasn't properly allocated to have met the building boom of Medical Center campuses that resulted throughout the 90's and continues today (for some reason this trend has not caught up with the realities of the current funding situation). Look even at our U of C. The fact that we even have a quad outside of Crerar surprises me, but don't expect it to make the cut when they run out of space.

Which brings me to my second point. I wouldn't feel very secure if I were a resident of any location between Cottage to the west, 56 to the north, Drexel to the east, and 57th to the south. The U is planning a new hospital spanning Cottage to Drexel on 57th (http://facilities.uchicago.edu/campusconstruction/projects/w-hosppavilion.shtml), and that area is the only remainig space in the vicinity of the medical center. Their recent acquisitions along 57th and Drexel are no coincidence. This area is ripe for some additional local eateries (BTW - Sammy's, heart attack and all, a must have for the neighborhood) to be intersparsed amongst the med center buildings. Although, if you have plotted the prices at the hospital and DCAM cafeterias over the past couple of years, it seems as though the University might not like to bring in competition. But this is a dire need, and it would be nice for someone to step up. I'm tired of bringing my lunch everyday and eating in my building.

Zig & Lou said...

"In fact, this is what you get when you don't have "unique local businesses" to bid out the bank chains. It's easy to say "keep the local businesses", but in fact we don't have that many because we don't have a large enough market to support them nor enough entrepreneurs to take risks locally.

Instead, we have consumer needs that aren't met, stores that don't meet them, and vacant storefronts on top of it all. I think if there were in fact more unique local entrepreneurs willing to create those unique local businesses, there might be less pressure for the change that many want and others find threatening."

Yes to all of this, but a couple of additional points. It is hard, no, nearly impossible for an independent business person to be a more attractive tenant than a branch bank to the few large organizations that holds a large percentage of the decent of commercial real estate in the Hyde Park market. No matter how great, innovative, or needed a business may be, if you are an independent business that is self-financing or even borrowing from the SBA, the few landlords in Hyde Park will generally prefer the 'safe' (and corporate) tenant to the entrepreneur. Also, depending on the category, the Hyde Park area is a market in which a small business, run like an actual business, can thrive. The reason that many businesses struggle in the area has little to do with customers and a lot to do with pathetic customer service and small business owners that don't really understand the dynamics of business. And a note about MAC Properties, as a commercial tenant of MAC, we have found them to be very professional and fair so far. Compared to a local private building owner with whom we negotiated for eight months for a retail space only to find out that he had no intention of leasing us the space that we had been 'promised' multiple times. Lesson learned.

Alex said...

Chicago Pop,

You say a wide-scale redevelopment effort like University Village is unfeasible here, but it seems like that's precisely what you're advocating in the original post about projects like Penn.

And about the bank branches - I find it hard to believe that they spring up as last resorts when local entrepreneurs fail to materialize. Consider a case in that current mecca for development, Wicker Park. The Filter cafe, in a perfect location in the dead center of the neighborhood, was always full every time I walked past - until it was replaced at some point in the last year with a Bank of America that seems to be mainly an empty jewel box for an ATM. Surely there were entrepreneurs from Wicker Park and elsewhere who could've done something better with the space?

As for MAC - why does it make a difference whether or not Hyde Park housing is owned by out of towners? They're a lot less likely to be responsive to the neighborhood's needs than a local landlord. The old case of K&G was obviously far from ideal (though having lived in buildings owned by both companies, K&G was quicker to respond to maintenance calls). I would get frustrated with K&G - but I get furious with MAC. They brazenly lie to my roommates, friends, and neighbors. While they may go to great lengths to improve the cosmetic appearance of their buildings, necessary repairs are endlessly delayed and when they're actually done, they're often slapdash or downright incompetent. I don't care about having decorative bushes outside my front door. I'd like my back door not to be drafty, my front porch railing to be safely constructed, and my front door lock to actually function. There are some competent and friendly people who work there, but one happens upon them by chance.

Alex said...

And also, some of the most attractive and well maintained buildings in Hyde Park are those owned by small landlords. Although it's also true that they're more susceptible to flipping their holdings to condos, and that MAC has stated it is committed to rental housing.

chicago pop said...

Alex: see zig & lou's comment above yours for a positive appraisal from a tenant of MAC. Whether they are garbage or not has nothing to do, in principle, with whether they are local or not. That's an issue that comes up a lot on this blog, and I just don't buy it. Local does not equal better, nor necessarily worse. The Co-Op was very local and got itself into a hole. There were plenty of local landlords who got bought by MAC and owned dilapidated buildings; MAC may not be doing a good job getting on top of the situation, but they didn't create the problems you want fixed. I know in a number of places they're doing more than replacing shrubs; they're doing gut rehabs of at least half a dozen buildings I can think of on the west edge of Hyde Park. Boards on the doors. Guys throwing junk out the windows. Whether they are successfully managing their transition from nowhere to a major property owner seems to be an open question.

I may indeed have confused two issues in responding to the oft heard plaint about saving unique local businesses; this is separate from the problem of "unique local landlords" who, if you follow the comments of local businesspersons made on this blog, or talk to folks who rent commercially in the neighborhood, can, as zig and lou mentions above, be less than interested as landlords in preserving unique and local businesses. But again, the bank branch issue is one that shows up across Chicago -- I'm not sure it's a sign of Hyde Park going south because people advocate more retail as we do here.

But I'll make the point again that for unique and local businesses, you need unique businesspersons. We have some, but not the flocks that one might think.

As for advocating what Penn is doing, even if the U of C were to do something similar but smaller, it's not clear that HP and surrounding environs would turn into the image you have of UV, which is one that I'm not sure I share.

chicago pop said...

zig & lou: I appreciate your suggestion that HP is not necessarily low on good businesses for lack of demand, and that customer service has a major role to play.

Alex: i should say that I don't want to downplay your unsatisfactory experience dealing with MAC rental properties. I know a lot of people have expressed the same frustrations. I'm just not ready to jump from that to a broader statement about being local, distant, big or small. It's particular: Antheus has gone from 0 to 60 in Hyde Park very quickly, and we're seeing the effects. Conceivably, it could all sort out. Or not.

Greg said...

Keep in mind who MAC purchased most of these buildings from: one of the most notorious property owners in the area. Many of these buildings were in terrible condition from years of neglected and half-assed maintenance and from tenants who trashed the places. And I can vouch for the large number of buildings, especially along Cottage Grove, that are currently boarded up and undergoing gut rehabs.