I try to keep track of what’s happening in other college towns since the problems, and opportunities, tend to be fairly similar. Knowing that’s an interest of mine, a professor from Kent State forwarded me the following article on college town redevelopment from Planning for Higher Education. The article talks about one developer in particular who has targeted college towns, and I am pleased to report that the developer has shown quite a bit of interest in putting together a Kent redevelopment project.
Building Up College Towns
by Elia Powers
Elia Powers. 2007. Building Up College Towns. Planning for Higher Education. 35(4): 51–54.
When it comes to college towns and neighborhoods near urban campuses, quaint will not cut it anymore. An increasing number of institutions are finding ways—directly or indirectly—to promote a mix of commercial and residential development just beyond their borders that they hope will lure students and faculty.
The University of Connecticut and Rochester Institute of Technology are seeing downtowns emerge in unpopulated areas. The University of Pennsylvania and Temple University are, in different ways, reshaping their Philadelphia neighborhoods. Colleges with deep pockets are adding to their assets. Those with limited means are leasing out space and hoping to reap the economic benefits without construction costs.
College town development has become a cottage industry, and a major Cleveland firm has made that its niche. Mixed-use developments, which combine residential and retail space, are popular models. Developers are building up, not out, and creating complexes that are pedestrian friendly and adhere to a school of design called new urbanism.
“There’s a recognized trend at play in urban, suburban, and rural college towns,” says Tony Sorrentino, director of external relations for facilities and real estate services at the University of Pennsylvania. “The university has a responsibility to contribute to the landscape in the most positive way it can. As they accept their roles as land planners, universities realize they have to get into the game.”
Building From Scratch
A few scattered strip malls in the sleepy town of Mansfield, Connecticut, were not good enough. That was the clear message coming from current and potential students at the University of Connecticut’s main campus in the Storrs neighborhood.
Retention rates sagged for years and a College Board survey showed that admitted, undecided students listed lack of a vibrant commercial district as a leading reason for enrolling elsewhere. “Due to the lack of a town, the university had to be everything for the students. That’s a hard order to fill,” said John R. Saddlemire, vice president for student affairs at the University of Connecticut. “It became a quality of life issue.”
Karen Grava, a university spokesperson, said the dearth of options in town, coupled with a campus that “was so horrible that we didn’t want students to come on tours,” spelled trouble. So the state of Connecticut intervened, first in 1995 and again five years later, promising to spend roughly $2.3 billion to improve all of its public colleges.
Grava said the campus infrastructure has improved significantly since the campaign began. The Storrs campus is in the midst of a major facelift that includes construction of a fine arts center designed by Frank O. Gehry.
The town has not kept pace, said Peter Newman, a partner with Herbert S. Newman and Partners, a Connecticut architecture firm. “The university has still been losing some world-class research opportunities because there is no place for academics to take families to the movies or go within walking distance. There needs to be a heart of town,” said Newman, whose firm has designed what he hopes is the answer.
Construction is scheduled to begin on a 15-acre development called Storrs Center sometime in 2008. The project, estimated to cost at least $175 million, calls for up to 800 housing units and up to 200,000 square feet of retail and 75,000 square feet of office space. The majority of the land is owned by the University of Connecticut, and the university has approved the sale to developer LeylandAlliance. According to Macon C. Toledano, LeylandAlliance’s Storrs Center project manager, this will cover all costs. The center is set to open in stages over a five- to eight-year period, Toledano said. The first portion is an area across the street from the fine arts center, which is designed to serve as a town center. “What’s so important about any college town is a public realm—main streets or places that students and townspeople share,” Toledano said.
(That public realm has been nonexistent at Rochester Institute of Technology since the university moved from downtown Rochester more than 35 years ago to its current suburban location. That is why the institute is pushing for a project it calls College Town.)
The University of Connecticut housing is intended primarily for graduate students, married students, young alumni, and senior citizens. Residents will be in close proximity to a mix of local and national retailers, Toledano said, with no big box stores allowed.
The university and private planners are working closely with the Mansfield Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit organization charged with revitalizing commercial areas in town. The mayor, city residents, and university officials serve on the group’s board of directors. Cynthia van Zelm, executive director of the partnership, talks almost daily to a contact in the university president’s office. The constant communication has helped relations between the city and the university, she said.
“It’s unique to build a downtown essentially from scratch,” van Zelm said. “Our interests are the same as the university’s, as far as the need to create something for everyone.”
Putting Their Imprint on Philadelphia
Larry Maltz, owner of Last Word Bookshop, shuffled through titles on the bottom rack of a ceiling-high bookshelf one afternoon last summer, preparing to relocate around the corner. For four years, his bookshop was in this prime University City location, a block from the University of Pennsylvania campus.
Maltz and other tenants of this one-story brick complex (including a pizza parlor and yoga studio) were making way for a 10-story mixed-use development. Plans call for roughly 150 suite-style apartments, primarily for students, and 40,000 square feet of retail space on the first floor and mezzanine level, according to developer University Partners.
Old row houses are the last vestiges of what used to be in the 40th Street corridor. Down the street from the planned complex sits a massive grocery store, a multiscreen movie theater, and a high-end restaurant—all parts of the university’s recent campaign to revitalize the University City neighborhood.
“It starts to blur the line of what is campus and what isn’t. In an urban setting, that’s a good thing,” said Tony Sorrentino. “We have a long history of a town-gown relationship with distinct walls, which leads to social problems. We want to make the area come alive with vibrancy and vitality.”
Still, Maltz is concerned about the type of tenants that are coming into the area and whether families will be able to afford rent. “The idea is to draw students back closer to campus—and that’s not a bad thing,” Maltz said. “But it still hurts a little. Businesses like mine are lucky to make it with rent as it is. The new owners can charge more, and if there are family-owned businesses still, great. But that’s not going to happen.”
Maltz’s concerns mirror those of some community activists who live near college campuses and do not want to see their neighborhoods lose their regional qualities. Sorrentino said university officials meet regularly with University City residents to discuss planned changes. The grocery store came about because of lobbying from neighbors who were unhappy with a dimly-lit parking lot that sat on the plot of land before, Sorrentino said.
The University of Pennsylvania has already invested millions of dollars in off-campus construction, and a new plan calls for extending development toward the Schuylkill River and Philadelphia’s Center City.
Temple University is making its mark on Philadelphia without spending a dollar. Generally considered a commuter campus, Temple has had, in recent years, an increasing number of students who want a residential experience, said Clarence Armbrister, the university’s senior vice president.
Senior administrators made the strategic decision not to invest in more university-owned housing, but to enter into long-term lease agreements with developers who would build on the Temple-owned property.
“This comes from an institution that, quite honestly, doesn’t have a lot of means,” Armbrister said. “We had to make a choice about priorities. Money that we could spend should be on academic enterprise—but we still recognize housing as part of a student experience.”
Temple students are guaranteed housing for their first two years only, which has opened the market for five residential buildings that have opened in the last four years. As of last summer, $183 million in private investment has gone into housing complexes. A $75 million, mixed-use building with 1,200 beds, retail space, and a movie theater was also scheduled to open near campus.
“We think instead of scattered utilization of residential property, students would be better off in developments near campus,” Armbrister said. “The way students live, they may not be consistent with someone with a 9-to-5 lifestyle.”
A major residential hall is also set to open in Manhattan, primarily for students at City College of New York, as well as other students in the City University of New York (CUNY) system. The only other building set aside for student housing was acquired about 30 years ago. The new $56 million building, called The Towers, has roughly 600 rooms. “It is a change for CUNY, which was created as a quintessential commuter school,” said Lois Cronholm, City College’s chief operating officer.
College Town, Inc.
Colleges are not the only ones adapting to the demands of students and faculty. Fairmount Properties, a 10-year-old Cleveland-based development firm, has shifted its focus from strictly commercial properties to mixed-use projects near college towns.
Randy Ruttenberg, a principal with Fairmount Properties, said the latter market is growing: the company is doing about $250 million of work per year. Fairmount pays all the construction costs for its projects. “We got a sense that in today’s competitive environment, colleges can’t solely count on academic programs and amenities within their four walls to sell the institution,” he said.
The firm’s first college town project involved a development near Case Western Reserve University. Ruttenberg said Fairmount is developing plans at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Oberlin College, and Illinois State University, among others. The Illinois State project is being done in conjunction with a downtown revival in Normal, Illinois.
Ruttenberg said his company has explored more than 340 college towns with the help of a consulting firm that consists primarily of former college and university presidents.
Fairmount stays away from student housing; its niche within a niche is custom-made homes for faculty. Oberlin officials, for instance, told the company that it was attracting faculty candidates from the Chicago area, which is well known for brownstone buildings and lofts. Ruttenberg said the firm has offered to develop a strip of housing that incorporates those styles so the professors feel at home.
The company has ties with national franchises such as Gap and Wild Oats Markets, but also tries to balance national chains with local stores in the commercial centers.
Developments create a long-term income stream for universities that own off-campus property, Ruttenberg said. And he said the projects are solid investments for the company. “We look at the college or university as the anchor tenant,” he said. “They are resilient and generate a creative class.”
The following are some additional, related resources which you may find useful.
- PHE 34 (4) July- September 2006 “Higher Education and Health Care Institutions as Stimuli for the Revitalization of Camden, New Jersey, hrough capital Expansion, Collaboration, and Political Advocacy”. pages 5-11
- Also: collegetownlife.com
- SCUP Knowledge Community: Town Gown
- SCUP Town Gown Audio Conference