University and City Partnerships: no city gets left behind
You can’t open a newspaper these days without finding an article or two about new university city partnerships springing up all over the country. Successful universities and their host cities have always worked to peacefully co-exist — usually under the moniker of “town gown” relationships — but somebody moved that cheese and just showing up won’t cut it any more. Now universities and cities have to go beyond co-existing to actually collaborating on projects on and off campus. It’s an exciting time to be in a university city because it ushers in a whole range of new possibilities that we used to just dream about. Now we can actually do it.
The University of Arizona, Ohio State, University of Connecticut, UPenn, Penn State… the list of universities that are working to redefine town gown relations goes on and on. The new partnerships are taking universities and cities in new and exciting directions. Tired of hoping for new stores to pop up on their own to re-energize downtowns, cities and universities are taking matters into their own hands by collaborating on redeveloping downtowns, expanding retail, and regentrification of residential neighborhoods themselves.
This new partnership is not charity — both sides have too much at stake to not pool their resources and align their goals — this is a business decision. Competition for the top students, top faculty and great student athletes has pushed universities into areas outside traditional campus marketing to attract and retain the best talent. That talent pool looks at a university and the city that it resides in as a package deal — so both parts have to be first rate.
In every speech I’ve heard Dr. Lefton give he is out waving the city/university flag. He has really high expectations for Kent State and he knows that his ability to raise the academic performance on campus is directly tied to the quality of life enjoyed in Kent’s neighborhoods and the vibrancy of downtown Kent. His staff and our staff are working really hard to bring these aspirations to life. Like I said, it’s a really exciting time to be in Kent.
To give you a flavor of what universities are doing, read on to see what the University of Connecticut is doing with its downtown.
UConn Decides to Build Its Own College Town
STORRS, Conn. — Colleges have traditionally tempted top students with ivy-covered campuses, towering Gothic buildings and up-to-date student centers. But nowadays, there is a sense that a beautiful campus is not enough. An alluring college town is seen as necessary as well.
In Columbus, Ohio, the City Council acknowledged that in 2002 when it adopted “A Plan for High Street: Creating a 21st-Century Main Street,” which includes a $130 million mixed-use development for the two-mile stretch of the street that runs past Ohio State University. At the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, university officials announced plans in June to demolish a section of the north side of a main artery, Walnut Street, and add a $75 million development of midrise apartments and retail space.
After the state committed to spend more than $2 billion for improvements to all its campuses, the University of Connecticut decided on a sweeping project at its main campus in this hamlet in the still-rural town of Mansfield. Working with local officials, it plans to demolish the meager downtown, which looks more like a makeshift set for a Hollywood western than a New England college center, and build a town from scratch.
Construction of the development, called Storrs Center, is scheduled to begin next year. The project will include up to 300 market-rate rental housing units, up to 500 residential units for purchase, about 200,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, 40,000 to 75,000 square feet of office space and 5,000 to 25,000 square feet of civic and community space. A town square will be at its core, mimicking the greens at the center of hundreds of New England villages.
Of the 49-acre project, just 15 acres will be developed, a little less than is currently in use. The rest will be preserved for conservation.
The development will incorporate existing town buildings and sit directly across the street from the university’s still-in-progress Fine Arts Center, designed by the architect Frank Gehry in association with Herbert S. Newman & Partners of New Haven. The Newman firm is also the architect for Storrs Center.
“Students came and saw there was no sense of place,” said Macon C. Toledano, the Storrs Center project manager for LeylandAlliance, a development company in Tuxedo, N.Y.
“This project offers an incredible opportunity to bring together families who live in the town, retired and working professors, and students,” Mr. Toledano said. “It depends upon appealing to this broad spectrum, and the more you do it, the more vital it will be.”
LeylandAlliance adheres to the tenets of New Urbanism, which advocates walkable neighborhoods and traditional housing.
Storrs Center has a projected cost of $165 million. On top of that, LeylandAlliance, through the Mansfield Downtown Partnership, a consortium that includes the developer, the town and the university, is seeking about 10 percent in grants from the state and the federal government. These would be used to improve Route 195, which runs past the campus; to build a municipal parking garage with about 1,000 spaces; and to help raze eight commercial buildings.
Among them is a strip mall that fronts directly on Route 195, where matchstick blinds hang from the front of a porch characterized by splintering wood and the need for several coats of varnish. “Bruces Noveltys” is lettered crudely on one display window, which otherwise allows a view of an empty interior.
Some other storefronts are also vacant. But a pizza restaurant, convenience store, travel agency and florist are still thriving there. Several stores are set into the back of the building as well, including a used-book store, a hair salon, a barber shop and a tattoo parlor.
Down the street, Cynthia van Zelm, executive director of the Mansfield Downtown Partnership, and Mansfield’s mayor, Elizabeth C. Paterson, recently walked along part of the perimeter of the project.
“The idea is to change Route 195 from a highway to a main street,” Ms. Paterson said, as she watched cars whiz by.
Interest in the new development on the part of potential residents has been high, Ms. van Zelm said. “People who are ready to downsize, and who like the idea of being close to the School of Fine Arts, are interested,” she said. “The location is so great; you can walk to everything.”
The town of Mansfield hopes to gain $3 million to $4 million in property taxes annually from the project, said the town manager, Martin Berliner.
“That’s very important in a state that doesn’t provide for any other tax sources for municipalities,” Mr. Berliner said. “But also as important is providing a sense of community that we don’t have now. Providing the downtown will help the university continue to move forward.”
Historically an agricultural college, the university now has more than 16,000 undergraduates and about 6,000 graduate students. It has been trying to shed its cow-college image since 1995, when the state passed UConn 2000, a $1 billion, 10-year program to renovate the main campus and five regional campuses — Groton, West Hartford, Stamford, Torrington and Waterbury — along with the law school in Hartford and the medical center in Farmington.
An extension of that project, 21st Century UConn, added another $1 billion to construction efforts on the main campus. Victorious men’s and women’s basketball teams have bestowed a national reputation. But as cows continue to graze on the east side of Route 195, the downtown holds on to the old image.
University officials conduct a survey every two years of 9,000 undergraduate applicants who have been admitted; in any given year, about one-third attend and two-thirds decide to go elsewhere. The surveys indicate that the lack of a college town was the primary reason that students chose another university, said M. Dolan Evanovich, the vice provost for enrollment management at the university.
Mr. Evanovich believes he is a prime example of why the university needs a town. When he moved to Connecticut almost five years ago, he and his wife, Suzan, decided they wanted to raise their children in a college town and bought a house on university property.
“We found out there was a college, but no town,” Mr. Evanovich said. “It’s beyond time that Storrs should have a town.” University Kiosk