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Anchor districts emerge as powerful players in bid to remake cities into vibrant, livable places

Chris Ronayne, President of University Circle Inc.
Chris Ronayne, President of University Circle Inc. - Bob Perkoski

The University Circle neighborhood of Cleveland -- a hub for universities, hospitals and museums for over a century -- is alive with construction. Already the first residents are living in the sleek Uptown community, a $44-million mixed-use project that replaced an aged shopping plaza with a more progressive layout of shops and eateries hugging the street.

In East Baltimore, home to Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine, more than 1,200 new homes are springing up on a site where doctors long complained of watching drug deals from their office windows. The $1-billion Science and Technology Park project is being developed by a group of private and institutional partners.

And in Cincinnati, the U Square @ the Loop project finally got off of the ground last year after a decade of delays. The development, which is located adjacent to the University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, features 80,000 square feet of retail and 160 apartments that will serve the dense community of workers and students.

While disparate, these far-flung developments all have at least one thing in common: They are being led, planned or paid for by major institutions like universities, hospitals and museums. These stakeholders, often called “anchor institutions” because of their key role in stabilizing neighborhoods, increasingly are not only drivers of job growth and innovation, but also powerful players in remaking cities into vibrant, livable places.

“Cities are back, downtowns are back, and the places that we call anchor districts are leveraging growth in cities,” says Chris Ronayne, President of University Circle Inc., the nonprofit group that worked with institutions like Case Western Reserve University to bring the Uptown project to fruition. “They’re the places shaping the new metropolis.”"Cities are back, downtowns are back, and the places that we call anchor districts are leveraging growth in cities."

A Shift from the Past

A historic shift is occurring as anchors re-engage with communities, Ronayne explains. In the not-so-distant past, institutions like Case Western Reserve University, University Hospitals and the Cleveland Clinic all were criticized for being less than responsive to their neighbors. Worse, said some, these institutions established barricades between themselves and surrounding low-income neighborhoods by buying property, tearing it down and erecting a buffer of parking lots, garages and shiny office buildings.

While this remains a real problem in many cities, Ronayne and other anchor district leaders say that approach is changing. Thanks to an increased acknowledgement that their clout can be used to better neighborhoods and, more importantly, that they are uniquely positioned to do so, institutions have become drivers of creative placemaking.  

“Anchor institutions are the engines of a new urban renaissance,” says Ronayne, citing the multi-billion dollar investment of University Hospitals in a local, employee-owned laundry as one example how mega-institutions can use their size to help low-income communities. He also cites investment in new housing, retail options and public spaces throughout the community as examples of how institutions are creating urban vibrancy.

Ronayne says that while educational and medical institutions (so-called “eds and meds”) often are among a city's largest employers, one is not enough. “You have to gather them together in a multi-anchor district,” he argues. “You can leverage it for all-city growth.”

All about Partnerships

Anchor institutions might be wealthier than the neighborhoods they seek to help, but that doesn’t mean they have all the answers. In fact, collaboration with local neighborhood groups really is the key to maximizing return on investment and creating a big impact, according to David Angel of Clark University, speaking at a UCI meeting in October.

“While it may feel like a risky step to take, [creating partnerships] is an enormously rewarding, important step to take in fulfilling the goals of flourishing cities,” he says.

As an example, Angel cites the importance of nonprofit community development groups, which can serve as a conduit between large institutions and surrounding communities. Although Clark University, located in Worcester, Massachusetts, has just one seat on the local CDC’s board of directors, the school believes in accepting community input.

“That’s actually pretty scary for someone like me that is used to managing vertical organizations," says Angel. "It leads to a messy process, but I have to embrace those decisions.”

The big advantage of institutions, Angel notes, is that they are able to make 30- to 50-year commitments that most companies or organizations simply wouldn’t be able to make. Their financial and organizational wherewithal allows them to be patient investors.

“I’m the third university president to take part in these initiatives,” he says. “We’ve leveraged around $135 million within the community within the past few decades.”

Clark University has created a high-performing urban public school and rolled out the Promise Neighborhood Initiative, which allows any child who attends school in the neighborhood for five years and is admitted to Clark University to go for free. 

“We now see residents moving into the neighborhood, choosing to live and invest here because of the educational opportunities that are available to them,” he says. “We’re asking, What can we do around urban public education to further leverage that?”

Beyond Town vs. Gown

Although partnerships sound nice in theory, Sue Mosey of Midtown Detroit Inc. says it really comes down to shared decision-making -- that’s where the “rubber meets the road.”

“It’s somewhat better today, but there’s an ongoing tension between communities and anchor districts,” she says. “Some anchors are embracing of true partnerships, and for others it’s really a transaction. Those of us who sit on this side” -- individuals who work for neighborhood CDCs -- “know when it’s a true partnership versus just a transaction.”

So what does a true partnership look like? How are anchor institutions bridging the “town versus gown” gap between their campuses and the surrounding neighborhoods?

It starts with communication -- and lots of it. For example, Johns Hopkins University met with stakeholders and residents around its Homewood campus for more than a year to identify priorities before announcing a targeted, $10-million investment in the area.

“We hired a consultant and produced a 90-page report with lots of recommendations,” says Dennis O’Shea, a spokesperson for Johns Hopkins. “We calculated it would take $60 million, and we’re contributing $10 million. We’re going to try to attract additional investment from other anchor institutions, foundations, government and individuals.”

The goal is to jumpstart investment. “If we help to get things going by building new housing, then developers will see that, see momentum and want to hop on board.”

Still, others argue that communication alone is not enough; residents must have their own savvy organizations to ensure that they have a seat at the decision-making table. Otherwise, there’s the likelihood that institutions will make decisions out of self-interest. 

According to Wanda Wilson, Executive Director of Oakland Planning and Development Corporation in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh where University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and other major institutions are located, organizations like UCI which are largely governed by institutions might not fully represent neighborhood interests.

“Our goal is to do community organizing, to make sure the voice of the community is at the table,” says Wilson. Area institutions do not have seats on her group’s board, she adds, and that’s deliberate -- although she continues to work closely with anchors.

Institutions must also do more to ensure that economic opportunities reach residents of surrounding neighborhoods, Wilson argues. That’s why her organization recently led creation of the Oakland 2025 Plan, the area’s first community-driven master plan.

“We need to make sure that Oakland continues to be the engine of Pitt’s innovation economy,” she says. “Institutions need to take bold steps to help make that happen. One of our goals is to increase the number of people who live and work in Oakland.”

Untapped Potential

Oftentimes, the neighborhoods surrounding anchor districts are full of hidden economic potential, and anchor institutions can help unlock that by making strategic investments.

What’s happening in the Uptown area of Cincinnati right now offers one example. The Uptown Consortium, a community development corporation in this institution-rich neighborhood, fought hard to get the planned U Square project underway.

“We have 50,000 employees and 50,000 residents; there’s a tremendous market here that’s untapped,” says Beth Robinson, CEO of the Uptown Consortium. “Developers hear the message and they’re coming in. We’re having a development boom now.”

Building off of Uptown’s successful low-income and market-rate housing developments in recent years, that development boom now includes $700 million worth of projects. USquare has attracted national retailers to an area once starved for stores.

If done properly, that benefit can be felt by local residents on the ground, argues Robinson. “We’re working on a partnership with the Urban League of Cincinnati,” she says. “They’re sponsoring a job training class in order to prepare residents for the construction trades and place them in construction jobs around Uptown.”

Angel hears stories like this from anchor districts across the country. “I’m convinced the role of anchor districts in driving growth in cities will be success story of this millennium.”

Photos Bob Perkoski
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