Birth of university cities

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Eye from Albany
June 2007

Birth of university cities

by Paul M. Bray

Urban park historian Galen Cranz wrote in the 1960s that New York’s Central Park flowed out into the city and the city flowed into Central Park. She talked about vest pocket parks being created, marathons and other park and recreation-like activities taking place on the streets and sidewalks of the city. At the same time concerts and other city activities began to happen in Central Park.

Have you noticed that colleges and universities are flowing out into their cities and towns and city and town economic and residential uses are finding their way onto campuses? More than what Galen Cranz wrote about is happening between colleges and universities and cities and towns. Take a close look at you may see that they are actually morphing to become one and the same.

Let me explain. In the 90s Alain Kaloyaros began the State’s commitment to building a tech economy with his vision of university centered tech research in a network across the State of universities in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Ithaca, Albany and Long Island. Each University would become a center for excellence with ample State funding to do specialized research in separate tech areas. The research would ultimately be taken to the market place and create jobs to make up for the loss of manufacturing jobs.

This “business plan” for the State was elegant and took advantage of the transition to “industries of the mind” which were taking over the economy. On the other hand, there are reasons to wonder if it will really work and pay back the billions the public is investing in research that looked curiously like corporate welfare. While we match the research funds of giants like IBM and GE but what guaranteed that the return would be in New York rather than, for example, in Asia where production is much less costly. But regardless of that little detail, colleges and universities have continued to become inextricably entwined with our future economic prospects.

Something more than being tech centers is emerging when it comes to institutions of higher education. When I graduated from Boston University with a BA and then from Columbia School of Law, I walked away with the feeling my connection with those universities was over except for the memories. The rest of my life would go forth without any continuing university ties. Sure, I knew the alumni offices would be sending me fund-raising letters and inviting me back for class reunions. But that was about all.

Today if I was attending a university, I think my graduation would only be one milestone in a life long connection if not dependence on the college or university I would be attending. In fact, aren’t our institutions of higher education becoming our basic communities for life and the life-blood of most of our towns and cities with institutions of higher education?
What I find strange is that this is happening without much awareness on campuses, in city halls and state capitals or with the public at large.

This emerging phenomenon has many drivers. First, there is the economic transition from manufacturing to industries of the mind. Universities fuel these industries with educated workers and research. These functions need to be continually refreshed for both workers and research. Colleges and universities will increasingly be providing continuing re-education for the workers it graduated as well as be a growth setting for research facilities. The rush has been in recent years to have IT, biotech and other research facilities on or near campuses. For the graduate workers who may change jobs many times over their working years, maintaining active ties with their universities not only offers retraining but continuing networking connections to help find new employment.

Then there is the matter of community or lack there of in our mobile society. As graduates move from job to job and likely from one place to another, the university will become the anchor communities. It provides a place to come home to at any point in one’s lifetime.

If you doubt this, check out a New York Times article on “Colleges Offering Campuses as Final Resting Places”. Not only are many graduates retiring to communities near or on campuses, they are having their ashes maintained on campuses for perpetuity. One college official is quoted as saying, “In an era when many people are highly mobile and do not settle in one place for longs, a college can have a strong allure as a final resting place”. So, universities like Notre Dame and the Citadel are building columbaria.

More evidence can be found in the trend of colleges and universities developing or fostering mixed-use development around their campuses. Rural colleges are seeking to provide an urban experience and are becoming new town builders because that is what their students want.

Urban colleges and universities have a number of reasons for initiating or participating in redevelopment of areas surrounding their campuses. Development can include middle and upper income residences, retail centers, incubator centers, tech parks, retirement communities and offices for businesses wanting to be near a university. In Albany watch what happens as the former Harriman State Office Campus becomes a mixed-use urban development with many ties to its neighboring University at Albany.

In fact, colleges and universities are the one thing in many cities and small communities that is not only staying in place but also is the growth engine both on campuses but throughout their cities and towns. This is more than the European tradition of having the university located within the city center. Colleges and universities actually swallowing up their cities and towns and with that comes taking on town and city functions like public security.

In the not too distant future look for colleges and universities individually or collaboratively to take over in the community at-large public schools, public safety, social welfare programs, developing or causing to be developed intergenerational housing and retail/office complexes, providing a communities’ cultural and recreational facilities and being at the center of collaborations and partnerships with major national and global corporations.

There will be denial on the part of both institutions of higher education and local public officials as we transition to this new world. A certain arrogance and a continuing desire to maintain ivory tower academia still supports insularity on the part of higher education leaders and, of course, your local mayor doesn’t want to let go even as power continues to slip from his or her hands. Yet, the forces at work to have higher education morph and ultimately dominate their surrounding communities will continue to drive the trend.

Paul M. Bray is an Albany attorney. His e-mail address is pmbray@aol.com