Building Up College Towns

Universities with varying budgets look to mixed-use developments off campus to attract students and professors. 
August 23, 2006

When it comes to college towns and neighborhoods near urban campuses, quaint won't cut it anymore. An increasing number of institutions are finding ways -- directly or indirectly -- to promote a mix of commercial and residential development just beyond their borders that they hope will lure students and faculty.

The University of Connecticut and Rochester Institute of Technology are seeing downtowns emerge in unpopulated areas. The University of Pennsylvania and Temple University are, in different ways, reshaping their Philadelphia neighborhoods. Colleges with deep pockets are adding to their assets. Those with limited means are leasing out space and hoping to reap the economic benefits without construction costs.

Photo: James S. Wassell -- Courtesy of LeylandAlliance LLC

Town square portion of the Storrs Center project at UConn


College town development has become a cottage industry, and a major Cleveland firm has made that its niche. Mixed-use developments, which combine residential and retail space, are popular models. Developers are building up, not out, and creating complexes that are pedestrian friendly and adhere to a school of design called new urbanism.

“There’s a recognized trend at play in urban, suburban and rural college towns,” says Tony Sorrentino, director of external relations for facilities and real estate services at Penn. “The university has a responsibility to contribute to the landscape in the most positive way it can. As they accept their roles as land planners, universities realize they have to get into the game.”  

Building From Scratch

A few scattered strip malls in the sleepy town of Mansfield, Conn., weren't good enough. That was the clear message coming from current and potential students at the University of Connecticut's main campus in the Storrs neighborhood.

Retention rates sagged for years, and a College Board survey showed that admitted, undecided students listed lack of a vibrant commercial district as a leading reason for enrolling elsewhere. “Due to the lack of a town, the university had to be everything for the students. That’s a hard order to fill,” said John R. Saddlemire, vice president for student affairs at UConn. “It became a quality of life issue.”

Karen Grava, a university spokeswoman, said the dearth of options in town, coupled with a campus that “was so horrible that we didn’t want students to come on tours,” spelled trouble. So the state of Connecticut intervened, first in 1995 and again five years later, promising to spend roughly $2.3 billion to improve all of its public colleges.

Grava said the campus infrastructure has improved significantly since the campaign began. The Storrs campus is in the midst of a major facelift that includes construction of a fine arts center designed by Frank O. Gehry. The town hasn't kept pace, said Peter Newman, a partner with Herbert S. Newman & Partners, a Connecticut architecture firm.

“The university has still been losing some world-class research opportunities because there is no place for academics to take families to the movies or go within walking distance," Newman said. "There needs to be a heart of town," said Newman, whose firm has designed what he hopes is the answer. 

Construction is scheduled to begin on a 15-acre development called Storrs Center next summer. The project, estimated to cost at least $175 million, calls for up to 800 housing units, and up to 200,000 square feet of retail and 75,000 square feet of office space.

The majority of the land is university owned, and UConn has approved the sale to developer LeylandAlliance, which will cover all costs, said Macon C. Toledano, Storrs Center project manager for the firm. The center is set to open in stages over a five- to eight-year period, Toledano said. The first portion is an area across the street from the fine arts center designed to serve as a town center.

"What's so important about any college town is a public realm -- main streets or places that students and townspeople share," Toledano said.

That public realm has been nonexistent at Rochester Institute of Technology since the university moved from downtown Rochester more than 35 years ago to its current suburban location. That's why the institute is pushing for a project it calls College Town.

Photo: Rochester Institute of Technology

Rochester Institute of Technology's planned College Town development


The UConn housing is intended primarily for graduate students, married students, young alumni and senior citizens. Residents will be in close proximity to a mix of local and national retailers, Toledano said. (No big box stores allowed).

The university and private planners are working closely with the Mansfield Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit organization charged with revitalizing commercial areas in town. The mayor, city residents and UConn officials serve on the group's board of directors.

Cynthia van Zelm, executive director of the partnership, talks almost daily to a contact in the university president's office. The constant communication has helped relations between the city and the university, she said. 

"It's unique to build a downtown essentially from scratch," van Zelm said. "Our interests are the same as the university's, as far as the need to create something for everyone."

Putting Their Imprint on Philly

Larry Maltz, owner of Last Word Bookshop, shuffles through titles on the bottom rack of a ceiling-high bookshelf on a recent Friday afternoon. He's been in this prime University City location -- a block from Penn's campus -- for four years, but soon he will relocate around the corner. 

A 10-story-high mixed-use development is coming, which will displace the other tenants (pizza parlor and yoga studio, included) of the one-story brick complex.

Development plans calls for roughly 150 suite-style apartments, primarily for students, and 40,000 square feet of retail space on the first floor and mezzanine level, according to developer University Partners. Groundbreaking is scheduled for early 2007.

Old row houses are the last vestiges of what used to be in the 40th Street corridor. Down the street from the planned complex sits a massive grocery store, a multi-screen movie theater and a high-end restaurant -- all parts of Penn's recent campaign to revitalize the University City neighborhood.

"It starts to blur the line of what is campus and what isn't. In an urban setting, that's a good thing," said Sorrentino, the Penn external relations director. “We have a long history of a town-gown relationship with distinct walls, which leads to social problems. We want to make the area come alive with vibrancy and vitality.”

Still, Maltz is concerned about the type of tenants that are coming into the area and whether families will be able to afford rent.

“The idea is to draw students back closer to campus – and that’s not a bad thing." Maltz said. "But it still hurts a little. Businesses like mine are lucky to make it with rent as it is. The new owners can charge more, and if there are family-owned businesses still, great. But that's not going to happen."

Maltz's concerns mirror those of some community activists who live near college campuses and don't want to see their neighborhoods lose their regional qualities.

Sorrentino said Penn officials meet regularly with University City residents to discuss  planned changes. The grocery store came about because of lobbying from neighbors, who were unhappy with a dimly lit parking lot that sat on the plot of land before, Sorrentino said. 

Penn has already invested millions of dollars on off-campus construction, and a new plan calls for extending development toward the Schuylkill River and Philadelphia's Center City.

Temple University is making its mark on Philadelphia without spending a dollar. Generally considered a commuter campus, Temple has, in recent years, had an increasing number of students who want a residential experience, said Clarence Armbrister, the university's senior vice president.

Senior administrators made the strategic decision not to invest in more university owned housing, but to enter into long-term lease agreements with developers who would build on the Temple-owned property.

“This comes from an institution that, quite honestly, doesn’t have a lot of means,” Armbrister said. “We had to make a choice about priorities. Money that we could spend should be on academic enterprise – but we still recognize housing as part of a student experience.”

Temple students are guaranteed housing for their first two years only, which has opened the market for five residential buildings that have opened in the last four years. In total, $183 million in private investment has gone into complexes. Later this month, a $75 million, mixed-use building with 1,200 beds, retail and a movie theater is opening near campus.

“We think instead of scattered utilization of residential property, students would be better off in developments near campus," he said. "The way students live, they may not be consistent with someone with a 9-to-5 lifestyle.”

A major residential hall is also set to open in Manhattan later this month, primarily for students at City College of New York, as well as other students in the City University of New York system. The only other building set aside for student housing was acquired about 30 years ago. The new $56 million building, called The Towers, has roughly 600 rooms. “It is a change for CUNY, which was created as a quintessential commuter school,” said Lois Cronholm, City College’s chief operating officer. 

College Town, Inc.

Colleges aren't the only ones adapting to the demands of students and faculty. Fairmount Properties, a 10-year-old Cleveland-based development firm, has shifted its focus from strictly commercial properties to mixed-use projects near college towns.

Randy Ruttenberg, a principal with Fairmount Properties, said the latter market is growing: the company is doing about $250 million dollars of work per year. Fairmount pays all the construction costs for its projects.  

“We got a sense that in today’s competitive environment, colleges can’t solely count on academic programs and amenities within its four walls to sell the institution," he said.

Photo: Fairmount Properties

Planned development near Virginia Tech


The firm's first college town project involved a development near Case Western Reserve University. Ruttenberg said Fairmount is developing plans at Virginia Tech, Oberlin College and Illinois State University, among others. The Illinois State project is being done in conjunction with a downtown revival in Normal, Ill.

Ruttenberg said his company has explored more than 340 college towns with the help of a consulting firm that consists primarily of former college and university presidents. 

Fairmount stays away from student housing; its niche within a niche is custom-made homes for faculty. Oberlin officials, for instance, told the company that it was attracting faculty candidates from the Chicago area, which is well known for brownstone buildings and lofts. Ruttenberg said the firm has offered to develop a strip of housing that incorporates those styles so the professors feel at home.

The company has ties with national franchises such as GAP and Wild Oats Markets, but also tries to balance national chains with local stores in the commercial centers, Ruttenberg said.

Developments create a long-term income stream for universities that own off-campus property, Ruttenberg said. And he said the projects are solid investments for the company. "We look at the college or university as the anchor tenant,” he said. “They are resilient and generate a creative class.”


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