Universities as Developers

An International Conversation
Barbara Sherry, January 1, 2005

In the United States we are used to thinking about the university within the context of its host city. The University of Wisconsin in Madison, the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and the University of Illinois in Urbana play major roles in driving the economies of those traditional college towns. Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are examples of research universities that have served as incubators for new industries that have had significant economic and industrial impacts in Silicon Valley, California, and metropolitan Boston. The Julliard School in New York City, the Chicago Art Institute, and the film departments at the University of California (UCLA) and University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles also have had a significant effect on their local cultural landscapes.

After more than five years of focusing on the real estate development activities of U.S. colleges and universities, Lincoln Institute researchers are now investigating the roles that universities play in their host cities around the world. Will the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), a 733-hectare campus in the middle of one of the world’s largest cities, be able to maintain autonomy from the federal government through its land policies? Can a university that serves Northern Ireland’s Catholics and Protestants succeed in building a new campus in an area known for poverty and intractable political violence? What lessons can we learn from the redevelopment of a German military barracks by the University of Lueneburg that might be applicable to other universities’ development efforts?

Universities are major players in many activities not traditionally associated with the ivory tower. They are employers, purchasers, engines of economic growth, innovators, cultural meccas, branders of place and, increasingly, major real estate developers. This last role creates a web of opportunities and challenges that are not only important to the future of universities but also extend throughout the politics and economics of cities.

Formal examinations of the university’s role in acquiring, managing, selling and developing real estate have not been a topic of academic and professional inquiry in the U.S. until recently, but these issues are even less frequently discussed in international circles. There are few comprehensive case studies and literally no multi-continent examinations of how urban universities operate in real estate and land development, even though there is widespread agreement over its growing importance. The contributions of universities to their cities, the nature of state higher education policy and the increasing role of private market actors in university expansion are all important features of urban land development today, although they are realized differently in various places.

To facilitate further exploration and comparison of these issues, a dozen international scholars from Europe, South America, Asia and Africa gathered at the Lincoln Institute in March 2004 to present papers and engage in a critique of their work. They quickly moved the discussion beyond the case studies into a broader conversation about the role of the university in the history and the future of national policy toward cities and how such policy is affecting and is affected by the global economy.

The Role of the State

Outside the U.S., the university is almost always a public institution; therefore university land development is closely intertwined with and often an integral part of local and/or national planning and development policies. The levels of autonomy in real estate development decision making experienced by international universities are also dramatically different from those of U.S. universities, because of their relative attachment to the state as both an agency and public institution.

Anne Haila of the University of Helsinki pointed out the strong history of planning in Finland, for example, where plans are laws that carry great weight and supply clear direction to university land use planning. All university real estate in Finland is owned and managed by the national real estate company, which strives for efficiency in all of its real estate strategies. Conflicts between universities and the property manager became especially prevalent after 1999, when university departments were ordered to pay the full price of rent for their premises; if departments increased their space they had to pay more, but if they decreased it they were compensated. The reasoning behind the policy was to abolish the idea of “free space” and to make university departments aware that bringing in new research and other revenue-generating projects would help them pay for additional space.

Carlos Morales-Schechinger presented another example of the relationship between university land policies and the state in his review of UNAM in Mexico City. UNAM has been autonomous from the federal government for more than 50 years and has “abandoned any intention of becoming a developer.” Instead, UNAM considers the land’s use value as a sanctuary, an area secure from government intervention, and a place for study, natural spaces and public art. Approximately 29 percent (212 ha) of the land has been declared an ecological zone due to its unique flora and fauna.

Morales-Schechinger suggests that UNAM’s reluctance to engage in current real estate development is related to its past history, when some of its land was acquired from the territory granted to the peasants after the 1910 Revolution. The university serves nearly 260,000 students from all socioeconomic groups and thus views itself as an independent and often vocal critic of the federal government.

Shifting City Growth Patterns

Changes in the nature and structure of the nation-state brought on by economic restructuring, new political alliances, changing demographics, and the decentralization of governmental responsibilities and mandates can bring about radical changes in the real estate development policies of universities. Three participants focusing on universities in Portugal, Germany and Finland described the conditions of student demand and changes in the technology of work that were forcing both expansions and relocations of universities (or parts of them) in an increasingly decentralized urban environment.

Isabel Breda-Vazquez, speaking about the University of Porto (UP), noted the demographic shift in the city center, where UP was originally located, when it decided to expand and relocate its engineering and science facilities outside of the city, due to increasing demand for those courses of study and changing employment patterns. Problems associated with the subsequent decline of the city center included physical degradation, social vulnerability problems, functional obsolescence of buildings and spaces, reduced economic activity and consumption, and relocated student housing.

Changes in political alliances and the fall of the Iron Curtain reduced Germany’s need for military barracks, according to Katrin Anacker, and this has resulted in the large-scale conversion of one such facility to university property in Lueneberg. Increased student enrollment, a shortage of classrooms and the fact that university buildings were scattered throughout the city were important factors in the University of Lueneburg’s decision to take advantage of the military’s abandonment of a nearby barracks. Although dealing specifically with the conversion of military property into university buildings, Anacker’s paper may be read for its insights into the reuse of other types of obsolete or abandoned industrial buildings.

The growth demands on public universities and the decentralization of governance are occurring in the face of competing issues of demographic shift out of the city and revitalization efforts focusing on older parts of cities. Many workshop attendees identified the theme of abandonment during these discussions, in the contexts of either the state or local government or the university abandoning the city. Universities almost everywhere are placed in critical positions as they actively develop land themselves, and thus can be seen as agents of urban change—to both the benefit and the detriment of the city.

David Perry argued that to discuss the university as an engine of growth may be only part of the picture. The modern university may be an engine of the city’s development by dint of attrition, becoming even more important to central city renewal by filling the vacuum created by the withdrawal of once dominant agents in both the public and private sectors.

University Development Zones

Several papers addressed universities that are their own “zones of development” or “cities unto themselves.” Abner Colmenares presented the case of the Central University of Venezuela, a public institution in Caracas, and its Rental Zone (Zona Rental) Plaza Venezuela project dating from the 1940s. The notion of the Zona Rental dates back to 1827, when Venezuelan President Simon Bolivar granted real estate properties and farms to the university, to support its faculty and provide for its upkeep.

Adopting as its model Columbia University’s approach to the development of Rockefeller Center in New York City, Central University created and transferred the land to an independent foundation (Andrés Bello Fund Foundation for Scientific Development of the Central University of Venezuela–FFABUCV), which was mandated to promote scientific research by generating financial resources through the development of rental zone properties. By late 2004, more than 40 million square feet of construction had been completed, creating public spaces for the city, a subway center and numerous rental income sites, including a mall.

Wilmar Salim presented a similarly expansive project, the relocation of four universities in Indonesia to rural land formerly occupied by a rubber plantation. The government’s decision to relocate the universities from the capital city of Bandung to the Jatinangor area 23 kilometers distant resulted in the development of a new town to service the large campus. While the planning for the university was carefully conceived, such was not the case for the town that grew up alongside it. Salim notes several serious problems resulting from this relocation: environmental deterioration of the rural area due to the increased population and construction; lack of adequate planning in terms of infrastructure; and negative effects on community institutions caused by the influx of a population much larger than and culturally different from the indigenous residents.

Contested Space

The topic of the university as a contested space was addressed by Haim Yacobi of Israel and Frank Gaffikin of Northern Ireland, both of whom spoke of the challenges for urban universities located in places of conflict. In the Northern Ireland case, an attempt was made to set up a branch of the University of Ulster in an embattled area of Protestant-Catholic conflict and economic deprivation in Belfast. Although U.S. President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were present at the groundbreaking, the project faltered due to the lengthy development time and turnover of leadership, coupled with the existing problems associated with a historically contested space. The result was a distinct loss of credibility for the university in the community. Gaffikin stressed that when universities enter into these kinds of situations, they have to see the projects through with strong civic leadership.

Yacobi discussed the siting of Hebrew University on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, a decision made by the government rather than the university, as was the case in Belfast. According to Yacobi, relocating the university after the 1967 war had a fundamental role in judaizing Jerusalem.

Fabio Todeschini of South Africa also examined the roles and responsibilities of the university in shaping urban space in a place that was already contested. He noted that the University of Cape Town has undergone enormous change since the apartheid era; currently more than one-half of the student population is black, although the majority of professors are white. The development and real estate practices of these and other universities have both created and been affected by significant symbolic, economic and cultural changes in their countries.

The workshop participants agreed about the seeming contradiction between the importance of universities to their cities and political economies and the lack of formal study of this phenomenon. The meeting confirmed that, both locally and globally, universities have enduring, indeed even increasing, levels of importance in their cities and regions. It is also clear that land development policies are equally important to the universities, to the development futures of cities and to the policy relationship with the private market.

Barbara Sherry is a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the Department of Urban Planning, a research assistant at its Great Cities Institute (GCI), and an attorney.



The City and the University Project

The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy launched The City and the University Project five years ago, to study the changing relationships between universities and their immediate neighborhoods, cities and the society at large. The Lincoln Institute shares this interest in the role that universities play in their cities with many other organizations. However, our attempt to understand this role is motivated by questions regarding urban assets and the use of those assets.

According to the currently dominant paradigm of enlightened self-interest, universities engage the city with the realization that the economic well-being of the abutting community is directly correlated to its own health. Through this project we are attempting to articulate a philosophy that universities should serve society as a whole, not just their abutters. Our goal is to extend the thinking, conversation and actions of university-community-city relations beyond this paradigm.

Under the leadership of Rosalind Greenstein of the Lincoln Institute, David Perry of the Great Cities Institute (GCI) of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Wim Wiewel of the University of Baltimore, key actors from every conceivable side of university real estate development practices (including university administrators and faculty, developers, city planners and managers, journalists, nonprofit groups, and members of federal and state agencies) have been invited to participate in workshops sponsored by the Lincoln Institute. Perry and Wiewel have edited a book of U.S. and Canadian case studies contributed by some of these participants. Titled The University as Urban Developer: Case Studies and Analysis, this book is being published this spring by M.E. Sharpe, Inc., in association with the Lincoln Institute.

As a natural outgrowth of their work in North America, Perry, Wiewel and Greenstein expanded their research collaboration with an international seminar built on case studies from several continents. The workshop in March 2004 generated papers that will become part of a new edited volume, tentatively titled The University, the City and the State: Comparative Studies of University Real Estate Development.

In 2005 the Institute will convene a roundtable of practitioners and scholars to examine the university-city relationship in a variety of dimensions, including political, historical and philosophical. Another course is intended for neighborhood groups located near universities that face impressive challenges because of the particular role universities play in their district and their city. The course offers such groups the opportunity to learn how to best use their resources, relative to their university neighbors, to improve their urban environment.

The Institute will also offer a professional training opportunity for private-sector developers who work with and for universities that are extending their boundaries as demand increases for new laboratories, residential spaces, athletic facilities and other amenities. In addition, we are developing a special Web site for the urban university project that will facilitate communication among and between practitioners, policy makers and scholars.