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October 11, 2019

Colleges help drive urban revival, but town-gown relationships can be fraught

HBJ Photos | Sean Teehan UConn's Hartford campus.

New Haven was stumbling and struggling in the 1980s and early 1990s. Downtown was moribund, litter-strewn and dangerous — a Yale student (among others) was killed on the street in 1991.

Yale alumni started checking in from around the country, telling school officials that the negative image of the city was discouraging applications. The university had two choices: It could leave the city that had nurtured it since 1716— and such a drastic move was actually considered — or it could make the city better.

University leaders chose the latter path.

What followed has been a remarkable turnaround, a revitalization that has drawn national attention, put New Haven on a number of “cool city” lists and is even attracting retirees to center city apartments.

“The turnaround in and near downtown has been really amazing,” said author and journalist Philip Langdon, a longtime New Haven resident. “It’s become a great place to be.”

Yale was in the vanguard of a national movement among urban colleges and universities, many in struggling municipalities, to help revive their cities. Schools in Philadelphia, Syracuse, Cleveland, Milwaukee and other cities have invested in housing, job training, business start-ups and other ventures.

Though they cannot match Yale’s resources, other colleges in Connecticut have undertaken initiatives to help their cities as well. Though they didn’t all work, and didn’t entirely eliminate the town-gown tensions that sometimes exist, most have moved their cities forward.

They may not have “saved” the cities, wrote Chicago architect and architecture professor Sharon Haar about this national trend, but they advanced urban revitalization.

Colleges help cities by fulfilling their educational mission. They hire faculty and staff, develop new knowledge and hopefully produce learned and capable graduates.

Also, though sometimes thought to be isolated in ivory towers, most colleges have maintained many points of contact with their towns. These include a wide range of student volunteer activities as well as  adult learning programs and forums, sports and cultural events that are open to the public.

Some of the engagement projects are quite creative. For example, University of Hartford business students work with business owners in the city’s Upper Albany neighborhood on such things as planning, technology, and marketing. At Wesleyan, professors and student volunteers teach classes to inmates at the Cheshire Correctional Institution, and Yale has its athletes teaching city youngsters how to play squash.

But civic engagement came to a new level in the 1990s and early 2000s when colleges became players in community development. This was prompted in part by two grant programs — Learn and Serve America and the Community Outreach Partnership Center — that encouraged community activism, said Andrew Seligsohn, president of the Campus Compact, a coalition of more than 1,000 colleges and universities that promotes civic engagement. Also, the substantial drop in crime in many cities encouraged colleges the look beyond the campus, he said.

The motivation of college leaders was a mix of altruism and self-interest. Colleges want to produce engaged students, so must themselves lead the way, Seligsohn said. And, they don’t want to be held back, as was starting to happen at Yale, by the declining image of the city.

Yale’s approach to reversing that image has been remarkably comprehensive. Old Eli, in partnership with the city, has invested tens of millions in commercial and residential real estate, reviving the Broadway, Chapel Street and Whitney-Audubon areas and spurring redevelopment in other neighborhoods.

The university also provided faculty and staff up to $30,000 over 10 years to buy a home in the city, which has resulted in about 1,300 employees settling in New Haven since 1994. Yale also helped hundreds of city residents get jobs through the New Haven Works jobs program, made the city a center for entrepreneurship, notably in the biotech area, and partnered with several neighborhoods to improve housing, safety and literacy.

Other notable contributions include the $4 million a year in scholarships the university provides to New Haven high school graduates to attend public colleges in the state, and the help it provides to market and promote the city, and keep it clean and orderly, through the Town Green Special Services District.

Those are highlights; the university has also invested in any number of other civic, arts and development ventures.  And, if not quite at this scale, other Connecticut colleges have also worked with local government and institutions to improve the cities where they reside.

Wesleyan University, for example, partnered with the city in the early 1990s to revitalize Middletown’s Main Street, at a time when some 60 percent of storefront were empty. Among other things the university was instrumental in bringing a hotel and movie theater to Main Street, said William Warner, then the city planner and now the planner in Haddam. 

“It was exactly what a town-gown relationship should be,” Warner said.

Two years ago Wesleyan moved its bookstore to Main Street, and just announced it had purchased a former bank building on Main Street and was moving 90 employees in its finance and alumni relations offices there.

In Hartford, Trinity College, in partnership with Hartford HealthCare institutions, built a campus of four magnet schools and a Boys & Girls Club (where students volunteer) on a former bus garage site between its campus and the hospital’s.

More recently Trinity has acquired space in downtown Hartford for instruction and community research, a place “where the liberal arts meet the real world,” according to a 2017 concept paper for the downtown move.

And in late 2016, Sacred Heart University of Fairfield purchased the 66-acre former GE Global Headquarters campus for $31.5 million. Students moved into what is now called the West Campus that academic year. When all work is completed, the new campus will accommodate the schools of education, hospitality, computing and business, and provide other facilities.

In addition to development efforts such as these, several schools — such as Trinity — that aren’t in  downtown areas have opened downtown facilities.

Hartford may present the most dramatic example. As recently as 2001 not a single college had a presence in downtown Hartford. Now four do: Trinity, the University of Connecticut, the University of St. Joseph and Capital Community College.

The move to downtowns was concurrent with a reemphasis on city centers by urban planners after decades of suburban sprawl, said Seligsohn. He also said college completion had become an issue, and some schools moved downtown because it made them more accessible.

Whatever the reason, officials say it’s good for students.

“The city is a place to learn,” said Mark Overmyer-Velasquez, university campus director of UConn Hartford. Students can volunteer, work or intern at a variety of businesses, community and arts organizations, and otherwise learn the workings of urban America.

It also is good for cities.

“It is very important for a university to be linked to a city,” said New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart, who has Central Connecticut State University’s Institute of Technology and Business Development in her downtown.

Stewart said CCSU’s downtown presence creates synergy with the business community and brings young people downtown. Now that there is a CTFastrak bus rapid transit link between the campus and downtown — a distance of two miles or so — she said she is urging the university to bring more classes downtown.

It can also be good for historic buildings. Capital Community College is a major tenant in Hartford’s former G Fox building; this winter Post University moved 400 employees into Waterbury’s former Howland-Hughes department store building.

In addition to their presence in cities, university scholars study various aspects of urban life, which can benefit cities. For example, Hartford planning and zoning commission chairperson Sara Bronin told a transportation conference at CCSU in April that a study of parking in Hartford by University of Connecticut researchers informed the major revision of the city’s zoning code a few years ago.

Though most of these off-campus initiatives have been successful, not all of them have. For example, in the late 1990s Connecticut College president Claire Gaudiani made a major investment of college funds into revitalizing downtown New London.

Long story short: it failed. The college lost money and she lost her job.

Connecticut College isn’t alone. Wesleyan partnered with the city and a community agency in 2005 to start — and pay for — an arts-oriented school, the Green Street Teaching and Learning Center, in the city’s North End. It never became financially self-sufficient, as was hoped, and closed last year.

Also, raucous behavior by students living in off-campus housing has been a periodic nails-on-the-blackboard nuisance in some college-town neighborhoods.

And, there remains tension over taxes in some college communities. Colleges are exempt from local property taxes, except for levies on the commercial properties they may own. The state offers payment-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILOT payments, to offset the exemptions, but these have been reduced due to state budget woes and only cover part of the municipality’s loss.

Consider East Hartford, the home of fast-growing Goodwin College. Goodwin prepares students from the town and region for a number of professions, contributes funds to town projects such as the library renovation, hosts public forums. Its founder Mark Scheinberg is considered a visionary.

But Goodwin is the town’s second largest property owner, with property assessed at $126 million, said town finance director Michael P. Walsh, who retired this month. And since nearly all of it is exempt, the college pays just $156,000 in property taxes. Had the property been privately developed and taxed at full value, it would bring in slightly more than $6 million, Walsh said.

The town collects $1.1 million in PILOT payments from the state for Goodwin, said Walsh, and about a fourth of the state money goes to pay off a brownfield loan for the Goodwin site (parts of which were not easy to develop).

The town has a similar issue with is largest taxpayer, Pratt & Whitney, which enjoys a hefty exemption for manufacturing machinery and equipment — an exemption for which the state PILOT has been eliminated. Full taxation would put almost $15 million in the municipal till (the town recently settled a claim by Pratt that its assessment was too high). 

So, the costs of municipal services are passed to already stressed taxpayers, and the higher tax rate makes it that much harder to recruit new businesses.

Thus, a dilemma, and one faced by other communities — and other nonprofit institutions — as well. With many municipal budgets strained, officials have looked longingly at colleges, hospitals and other nonprofits as sources of revenue. Three bills were introduced in the General Assembly this year that would have required more contributions from colleges. None passed.

Yale and Quinnipiac University in Hamden make voluntary PILOT contributions to their towns, but most colleges do not.

Nonetheless, between their economic impact and contributions to the community, colleges earn their tax-exempt status, said Jennifer Widness, president of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges.  She said colleges don’t burden local schools, have their own security forces and in general don’t use many municipal services.

She said that PILOT and other payments from the state usually constitute about 25% or more of the taxable value of a college property, but this pretty much covers the services the college uses. “Towns with colleges and hospitals come out ahead,” she said.

Perhaps colleges need a better way to get that message to the public, but a nascent trend may help. In recent years, college engagement in some cities is moving toward economic development.

Colleges spur local economies in a number of ways — by leasing real estate to private entities, supporting research that produces new and marketable technologies, and by investing in business incubator or start-up projects.

One of the best known start-up ventures is the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, where colleges, hospitals and other anchor institutions have created three worker-owned cooperative businesses, in green energy, urban farming and laundry. New Haven is replicating the laundry co-op, in partnership with Southern Connecticut State University, said Mayor Toni Harp in a recent interview.

Trinity College is hosting one of the state’s newest ventures; its downtown campus will be the site of a MedTech Accelerator, a partnership with the college, Hartford HealthCare, UConn’s School of Business and CTNext, the state’s startup support organization. Its aim is to bring medical and health care technology companies to the city.

Yale’s efforts over more than two decades in New Haven offer a blueprint for collegiate civic engagement. The CliffsNotes version of this, experts say, is fairly straightforward.

First, know what you’re doing. Yale brought in Bruce D. Alexander, an alumnus and senior executive of the Rouse Company, famed for its festival marketplaces and planned cities, in the late 1990s to head its New Haven efforts. There may not have been a better candidate.

Alexander said in a recent interview that the threshold decision is figuring out the greatest area of need that can be most effectively addressed by the college’s resources. For example, if the greatest need is local schools, but politics prevents outside intervention, move on to something else.

Second, talk to the community, listen to the community, partner with community groups. Everyone is in this together.

Third, don’t compromise on quality. If Alexander couldn’t get the business he wanted at a particular locale, he’d wait until he did.

And finally, stick to it. Reviving distressed cities is a long game.

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