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Professional Opinion

Gown works with town to revitalize communities

Five best practices for higher ed planners considering mixed-use development.
University Business, June 2016
Herman Bulls is vice chairman of JLL Americas, specializing in delivering comprehensive real estate solutions to federal, state and local governments, nonprofit organizations and higher education institutions.
Herman Bulls is vice chairman of JLL Americas, specializing in delivering comprehensive real estate solutions to federal, state and local governments, nonprofit organizations and higher education institutions.

Two different worlds, divided by a gate: It’s a familiar scenario in any college town or urban neighborhood.

The phrase “town and gown” is rooted in the notion that universities and the surrounding communities are naturally at odds. But forward-looking colleges and universities are finding deep value in blurring those lines, and instead are leveraging mixed-use developments to improve the community and campus alike.

Engaging more deeply with the surrounding community can have a profound ripple effect. Community revitalization efforts, anchored by a respected campus, nourish the local economy—and also add to the appeal for students, parents and great faculty.

Building bridges

There are challenges on the road to bridging the town-gown divide, including rising enrollment, tight budgets and intense public scrutiny. But campus-driven community revitalization projects can be effective following these guidelines:

  1. Discover mutual opportunity in underutilized space. The Georgia Institute of Technology found eight acres of underused land that would be better suited as a $180 million mixed-use urban village (http://UBmag.me/git) featuring academic, office, retail, hotel and conference areas that generate revenue as well as spark further revitalization in a depressed Atlanta neighborhood. Carnegie Mellon University is breathing new life into an underused site on its Pittsburgh campus, with plans for an office, hotel and retail property complex. 
  2. Participate in dynamic neighborhood development. World-class institutions win recognition for great research—but without walkable neighborhoods, it’s hard to attract in-demand faculty. To this end, The Ohio State University has transformed a section of High Street to create the mixed-use South Campus Gateway. The development comprises 184 apartments and 225,000 square feet of retail, restaurant and entertainment space—including locally owned businesses with unique character, an invaluable ingredient in great college towns.
  3. Community-based planning is a must. Engaging stakeholders and working to fulfill residents’ needs is vital to maintaining neighborhood stability. Ohio State has won praise for working with diverse community members to preserve and improve quality affordable housing in the Weinland Park neighborhood, which is Columbus’ highest concentration of project-based, subsidized housing. By engaging partners to improve the properties, Ohio State’s market-based strategy has increased stability and livability within the neighborhood. This creates a safer, more attractive neighborhood for the university community.
  4. Nurture natural connections to industry. Interdependencies of business and academia are an exciting opportunity for discovery. In Drexel University’s Innovation Neighborhood, for example, a new mixed-use setting will unite education and research institutions with business. This will drive economic development while offering expanded opportunities for collaboration between students, faculty and the technology and business communities.
  5. Collaborate through public-private partnership structuring and financing. Public-private partnerships are never simple—but they can be hugely valuable. Creative team and capital planning requires stakeholders to align behind a shared vision, from boards of trustees and student governments, to local community associations and state agencies.

Many colleges and universities are finding that community revitalization efforts can support revenue goals as well as improve campus experiences. The challenge, of course, is to achieve the goals of both town and gown.

Herman Bulls is vice chairman of JLL Americas, specializing in delivering comprehensive real estate solutions to federal, state and local governments, nonprofit organizations and higher education institutions. He can be reached at herman.bulls@am.jll.com.

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