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Eds and Meds

Downtowns campuses help cities, and Buffalo needs help

A generation ago, Buffalo and state politicians ignored the experience of New York City, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and other American cities that have downtown college and university campuses. Instead, they built the State University of New York’s biggest upstate university center far from the historic downtown transportation crossroads of the Western New York region.

In so doing, they marooned tens of thousands of students far from the places where education connects with the rest of life. The medical school is isolated from the teaching hospitals, the law school from the courts, the school of social work from the social-service agencies. Locally owned retail businesses, which in other cities are organized in commercial zones that serve whole communities of students, faculty and staff, must make do without them.

New York’s leaders also forced the 25,000 students and 10,000 staff to rely on cars, because there is no effective regional transportation network—because there is no hub large enough to merit one. The regional crossroads is where it has always been: in downtown Buffalo. The university in isolation is not a city or even an “edge city.” It’s just a big node or activity center, off by itself, tangentially connected to the regional economy, much like the large state prison complex near Gowanda.

So two weeks ago, after the Amherst Town Board approved the “new urbanist” concept of a village-like mix of walkable residential and retail development for the old Gun Club property next to UB, one was left to wonder whether any such new investment could ever happen in the old regional hub.

The evidence of other communities is clear: Development happens where the educational centers are.

Today, the University of South Carolina in the city of Columbia, and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and the University of Oklahoma in Oklahoma City, and other large state and private universities alike are rapidly making heavy investments in brand-new and vastly expanded downtown facilities. Economics drives the decision-making: Co-locating the institutions where mature adults educate young adults near the places where other adults work brings a density that creates retail activity, drives real-estate appreciation, crowds criminality out, and also, if the students and their professors are smart enough, gives intellectual innovation a chance to become commercially relevant to the immediate vicinity of the school.

The University of South Carolina’s riverfront development in Columbia is an example of new, explicitly pro-city development, and it is unfolding quite rapidly today. The housing being built there isn’t just for students: It’s for people who want to live downtown, near everything. And soon, “everything” will include all the stuff that happens in a big state university—arts, athletics, lectures, and just lots and lots of people in the neighborhood all the time. Empty warehouses are giving way to a streetscape full of people.

On a recent visit to Baltimore, a trip around the rapidly expanding Johns Hopkins University campus displayed remarkable new growth. Every part of the medical school seems to have a new, privately endowed institute under construction. One of the poorest parts of town is finding itself a hub of intense development activity because of this expansion.

Governing magazine recently profiled the University of Alabama in Birmingham in its survey of big schools and their economic impact on local economies. “In many cities, a big university is becoming the economic engine that a big corporation used to be,” author Robert Gurwitt found. He also noted that universities and large medical centers don’t get bought out or relocated by their owners.

And it’s not just a Sun Belt story.

Pittsburgh’s downtown remains economically resilient, despite still being burdened by regional sprawl without regional population growth, thanks to the downtown location of three universities, a college, and a medical center.

Ditto Cleveland, where the sprawl-without-growth profile is the same as Pittsburgh’s and Buffalo’s, but where John Carroll, Case Western, and the Cleveland Clinic are anchor tenants in a downtown that is filling in with new residents. The “eds and meds” economy of Cleveland is growing rapidly because of the international reputation, and now the international trade, of the medical-services sector.

Even small-but-growing Erie, Pennsylvania, with its downtown Gannon College, has helped stabilize a city that saw major industrial operations shrivel. The preservationist ethos also helped: Erie’s downtown has some of the most handsome late-Victorian brick buildings anywhere, and has preserved a context that attracts consistent investment.

The healthiest Great Lakes downtown is the one where the schools are most densely clustered. Downtown Chicago’s Loop weathered the oil-shock recessions of the 1970s and 1980s because there were always tens of thousands of students, faculty, and staff nearby. Every day they ride the El to and from Roosevelt University, Columbia College, Loyola University, the Illinois Institute of Technology, three community colleges, three law schools, and Northwestern University Medical Center, which are all within a couple of dozens blocks, all served by public transportation, all next to hole-in-the-wall coffee shops, grand department stores, naughty and nice movie theaters, government offices, big banks, and the sharpest winter winds south of Lake Woebegone.

Downtowns work when colleges are there. Colleges work in downtowns. In the Rust Belt arc that stretches from Milwaukee (Marquette University) to Syracuse (Syracuse University and the Upstate Medical Center), cities that have experienced economic resiliency through the tough times and economic opportunity in good times are the cities with downtown colleges. Public investment in education is a good partner, evidence and experience show, when it matches up with private investment in retail, housing and commercial activity.

So why did Erie County Executive Chris Collins and the Erie County legislature decide to kill the plan for consolidating the three campuses of Erie Community College into one downtown campus?

Bruce Fisher has been a campaign press secretary, a speechwriter, and a consultant for Democrats including the late Paul Simon, Joseph Biden, Carol Mosely Braun, and Bill Clinton. He left the campaign trail to raise kids in Buffalo and served eight years as deputy county executive for Erie County.

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