City Campus 

Landlord and Normal Station neighborhood association president Jim Story wants — somewhat ironically — to see more homeowners living in his University of Memphis neighborhood.

"It's not that we don't want renters," he says. "If you have one rental per street, the culture is homeowner, but when you have all renters and one homeowner ... [the neighborhood] gets diluted by people who don't have as much stake."

Blame it on student housing, parking, or a need to expand, but modern universities have a tendency to erode the communities around them. And that's just the sort of thing Story — as well as the non-profit University District Initiative and the school itself — hopes to stop.

Last week, as part of an Urban Land Institute program, former University of Pennsylvania facilities and real estate vice president Omar Blaik spoke to a group at the U of M. During his tenure at Penn, Blaik was in charge of a $2 billion campus transformation. Now, after founding U3 Ventures, Blaik consults with urban universities on integrating schools with their surrounding areas.

While at Penn, Blaik says, "I learned that I was not in the business of campus planning but that I was in the business of city planning."

In the 1990s, the neighborhood around Penn was in decline. A student researcher had been murdered. The main drag was lined with parking lots and windowless, 1960s brick buildings facing toward the school. Students were advised to avoid West Philadelphia.

"In a way," Blaik says, "Penn destroyed the community that existed."

A similar situation transpired at the University of Colorado in Denver. The university positioned main buildings in the heart of its campus and surrounded them with the less essential uses: parking lots, athletic fields. (Sound familiar?) The result was a sort of unattractive moat around the campus.

"If you do [a campus plan], you start with the core and push out," Blaik says. "It needs to be a campus/community plan and on the edges, you need vibrancy."

At Penn, the university and its surrounding community members came up with an initiative: staff and faculty were given incentives to move into the area; a neighborhood school was created; and the university replaced parking lots with a grocery store, a movie theater, a cereal bar, dorms, apartments, and condos.

Blaik acknowledges real estate development is an unfamiliar function for most universities.

"Real estate is about risk; institutions are not. Real estate is opportunistic," he says. "Institutions are methodical and systematic."

Currently, the U of M has a plan for its new "front door" — an alumni center with a sprawling lawn — to face Highland Avenue. (To read about opposition to the proposed development, please see page 15.)

Football boosters also have talked about locating a football stadium on campus. But Story has another idea for the university: buy the Liberty Bowl and its surrounding property (another sea of asphalt). Let students going to class park there and take a shuttle to campus.

It's not a bad idea. I can think of a few schools that already use a set-up like this, including my alma mater, Northwestern University. And that approach would free up some of the land surrounding the university for redevelopment.

"You can put a police officer on every corner, but if you have retail or entertainment — reasons to get people on the street — that's the best way to make an area safe," Blaik says. "People may say you're creating an entertainment district. But these are essential amenities to creating a sustainable neighborhood."

It's something to think about, especially in the wake of football player Taylor Bradford's murder. A sustainable — and safe — university neighborhood is also good for the entire city.

Cities used to be described by the companies that were located there: Memphis is very much FedEx's town; Atlanta has Coke. But one look at International Paper — which decided to relocate its world headquarters to Memphis from Stamford, Connecticut, in 2006 — or Service Master — which relocated its headquarters from Chicago to Memphis the same year — shows that even large corporations are highly mobile.

"Cities don't have a manufacturing base anymore," Blaik says. "Even when [companies] are in cities, they are much more transient."

But institutions of higher education and medical facilities — the eds and meds, as Blaik calls them — are not.

"In 90 years, the University of Memphis will probably still be located in Memphis. It's not going to leave the city. That creates a unique bond," Blaik says.

And while the city is somewhat dependent on local educational systems for its workforce, that's not the only thing a school contributes to its community.

"We may think of institutions as factories that produce students," Blaik says. "At the same time, they are huge economic engines that hire people, develop real estate, and procure materials."

And not just for ivory towers.

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