Monday, April 04, 2005

Universities revamp neighborhoods

Otis White's column has an entry this week about universities getting more involved in improving their local neighborhoods for a variety of reasons. Since his column doesn't have permalinks, and it's pretty short, I'm going to go ahead and put the whole thing here (highlights mine):

City Planning 101 - Neighborly Colleges

If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that major universities and even some smaller urban colleges are a lot more engaged in their surroundings that they were, say, 20 years ago. Back then, the thought among college presidents was that what happens on the campus is our business, what happens outside is somebody else’s headache. Not anymore. Examples: Harvard is planning a new neighborhood in suburban Boston, Columbia is expanding its campus in New York, and the University of Pennsylvania is trying to revitalize the area around its campus in Philadelphia. And even when these universities are expanding, the Boston Globe reported recently, they’re not just buying up land and throwing up buildings. They’re planning expansions with an eye toward creating neighborhoods “that provide jobs, housing, services and entertainment for residents who may have no academic credentials,” the Globe said. Why? First, campuses often need to expand even if their student populations aren’t growing, because new research sometimes requires more elbowroom. Second, the competition for top-performing students and faculty is intense, and students today look for more than the Soviet-style dorm rooms and limited entertainment of the past. Faculty members, too, want livable, safe nearby neighborhoods. “You need entertainment and nightlife [near campuses] or you lose both faculty and students,” a University of Pennsylvania official said. “You need an engaged, vital and vibrant community.” Third, many universities want to encourage high-tech and biotech spinoffs near their campuses, which involves them in their surroundings. And finally, the Globe reported, some cities like Boston are pressuring colleges to house more of their students as a way of freeing up housing for other residents. Result: Colleges are coming off their campuses and getting involved in everything from starting new K-12 schools (Penn and Columbia have sponsored new elementary schools near their campuses) to revitalizing housing and encouraging new stores. “We used to be a fortress,” the Penn official said. “Now we see retail around us as a safety measure.” Footnote: It’s not just the Ivy League schools that are involved in reshaping their cities. Ohio State University in Columbus and the University of Cincinnati are also working on urban revitalization projects these days, the Globe noted.

It seems like Houston has two pretty golden opportunities to pursue the same types of projects:

  1. Rice and the Village, which they own most of anyway
  2. UH/TSU and the new southeast rail line through their neighborhood

Just like the earlier entry on venture capital, the first one requires Rice to direct its endowment in more tactical ways, rather than just a pure focus on simple return-on-investment (although, again, when looked at on an "overall returns" basis, it is likely to be much better for the university than simple pure-RoI investments). The Village and the neighborhoods around Rice are certainly not hurting, but I do think the Village could evolve beyond retail into a more mixed-use, higher-density, pedestrian-oriented area over time if it was guided in that direction. And, of course, it's perfect for biotech and high-tech spinoffs with the proximity to the Texas Medical Center, if the right kinds of commercial space were developed there.

I don't know much about the UH and TSU endowments or if they could be wielded this way, but at the very least it seems the universities should get actively involved with the transit corridor planning in their neighborhood, which I imagine they are.


At 8:51 AM, April 08, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The UH master plan contains some language about helping the west side of Scott Street to develop into a "college strip," though I don't recall seeing specifics on how they intend to do this. They are also planning some additional student housing just east of Scott Street, which should help.

The TSU campus will be expanding in a significant way eastward to Scott Street if they achieve the goals of their master plan. However, there's that little issue of finding the money...

These actions, combined with the light rail, could really transform Scott Street. But there are a lot of "ifs" along the way.


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