Some thoughts on university/downtown connections

Here’s an interesting trend to watch in the convergence of various economic development activities where universities and communities interact.

The Connective Corridor initiative at Syracuse University and the UniversityCity Connections initiative at Colorado State University in Fort Collins are interesting examples I’ve recently come across of universities being used as key components of downtown economic-development strategies.

Both campuses are not quite downtown, but each is clearly conceived as part of the overall asset base of its central city. Through these initiatives, civic leadership is assuring connectivity – both concretely in terms of transportation infrastructure and abstractly in terms of “mind share” – between the healthy asset and the part of town needing improvement or stimulation.

I don’t know Fort Collins except through reading about it for my professional work, but I know Syracuse well enough to know this connectivity is an urgent matter. Without it, the gorgeous architecture of downtown, the emerging arts district of the Near Westside, the Technology Garden business incubator, and the nightlife around Armory Square all remain dangerously disconnected from the source of vitality (and purchasing power) up University Hill.

The Connective Corridor is an attempt to use not only the university’s economic mass, but also its substantive expertise in landscape architecture and urban design, to master-plan a 1.5-mile, L-shaped connector that ensures students and faculty can get to downtown, and downtown can benefit from SU. The Corridor will feature bike and pedestrian paths and also a multimodal transportation facility at the Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems, an academic/industrial research lab that is being built by the state for SU approximately halfway toward downtown. The initiative is stewarded by the SU Office of Engagement, with strong support from the city, the state, the regional transportation authority, local utility companies, and the arts community.

In somewhat analogous fashion, the UniversityCity Connections initiative – which links the CSU campus to the Riverfront and Old Town arts district – is stewarded by the Community Foundation of Northern Colorado, the City and its downtown development authority. Somewhat as in Syracuse, the initiative combines the economic, the infrastructural, and the substantive by aiming to apply CSU’s research expertise in alternative and distributed energy to demonstrate a “zero energy district” capable of sustaining itself off the rest of the state’s power grid.

If I had to bet, I’d say we’ll be seeing more of just such initiatives. In fact, though I’ve been unable to find the remark in print, I personally heard Gov. Eliot Spitzer say at the Fuse conference in Syracuse last fall that one of the worst economic mistakes New York State had ever made was to put so many of the SUNY campuses built out in the 1960s distant from the large downtowns for which they are named. This is certainly true for three of the four SUNY university centers: Albany, Binghamton, and Buffalo.

Incidentally, I think initiatives like these two need to be distinguished from other manners in which universities have become involved in their communities, such as Community Outreach Partnership Centers sponsored by HUD, or multi-institutional consortia (e.g., Philadelphia’s University City District, Albany’s University Heights Association, the Colleges of Worcester Consortium, Boston’s Medical and Academic Scientific Community Organization in the Longwood Medical and Academic Area, Cleveland’s University Circle, or Cincinnati’s Uptown Consortium. Some of these are purely joint arrangements for transportation, security, sanitation and parking, while others have clear community-development aspirations, but all these are more in the nature of self-help for outlying institutional neighborhoods rather than a recognition by the core city and its leadership that the university is an asset that downtown needs to connect to.

I will blog separately about other forms of university collaboration including the COPC centers, involved foundations, and also regional, cross-institutional networks for tbed (many of which can be found on my own database), but for the kind of activity mentioned in this post, an excellent resource is the “Strategies & Models” page of the website Community-Wealth.org, sponsored by the Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland, which I have added to this site’s weblinks.

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