Education and medicine are two remaining industries for which the customer and service provider are in the same general location, pointed out Omar Blaik, president and CEO of consulting and development firm U3 Ventures and a former vice president at the University of Pennsylvania, making them the sort of anchors around which development can be planned. The role of anchor institutions in defining place and driving development was the focus of one session at ULI’s recent Place Making 2013 conference, held in Philadelphia.

In the U.S. Northeast, composed of 12 states and the District of Columbia, 1 million people work for higher-education institutions, according to Eugenie Birch, codirector of the Institute for Urban Research at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Anchor Institutions Task Force, an initiative led by Penn and administered by Marga Inc. that advances anchor institution/community partnerships.These institutions bring an estimated $28 billion into the region, Birch said. Penn and neighboring Drexel University have both played a role in the development of Philadelphia’s University City District.

“The question is, though, can an anchor-based strategy be instituted without the resources of an Ivy League university?” Blaik asked “Yes, it can. These strategies can be scaled up and down” as appropriate for the specific conditions – physical and economic – of particular institutions.

Blaik’s firm has been involved in just such an effort in Detroit. “There’s tremendous opportunity there,” Blaik said, with Wayne State University and two hospitals, plus the College of Creative Studies and several museums.

“The challenge was to capture the economic activity of the anchor institutions,” he said. “They hire 3,000 new employees every year, bringing $1.7 billion in goods and services and $230 million in research money to the local economy. But there was no evidence of that on the street.”  

Blaik and his team looked at ways to transform the neighborhood. “Investment isn’t just a matter of infrastructure and transit,” Blaik said. “It’s about public spaces, capacity building, and connectivity – stitching the fabric between anchor institutions and the community.” 

Studies reveal, for instance, that less than 10 percent of the institutions’ employees lived locally, and that less than 5 percent of their purchases were made in Detroit. Thus, one investment was to provide incentives for employees to move into Midtown – a program that resulted in 1,000 families doing so.  

Like Detroit, Camden, New Jersey, is coping with the economic blight that comes in the wake of disappearing industry. Camden ranks first, ahead of Detroit at number two, on the list of U.S. cities with the worst per-capita crime rates. And like Detroit, Camden is hoping to revitalize itself by capitalizing on its “eds and meds” assets – its higher-education and medical institutions.  

“We’re hoping to replicate what Penn did across the river in Philadelphia,” said George Norcross III, chairman of the board at Camden’s Cooper University Hospital. “But priorities have been misplaced for decades. We’ve heard a series of grandiose announcements, and they’ve never materialized.” The projects built on the Delaware River waterfront – the state aquarium, a minor league ballpark, and a 25,000-seat outdoor amphitheater – have not fundamentally changed the economic or sociopolitical realities of the city as a whole, he said.  

“We’ve been in Camden for 125 years and want to be here for 125 more,” Norcross said. “But public safety is problems one, two, and three. Penn wouldn’t be what it is if it were not in a safe community.” 

In a radical move, the Camden Police Department was dissolved and reconstituted as a countywide force. Within a month of the change, which took effect May 1, violent crime was down 34 percent, Norcross said. “This is step one in creating a place where people will invest,” Norcross said. A plan is also underway to rebuild the failing public school system through a public/private partnership, 

The other main element of the plan is an array of economic incentives provided by the state, including a 20-year real estate tax abatement and $500 million in tax credits and investments in building and renovations, Norcross said.  

The institutions that will anchor the revitalized economy are already in place, Norcross said. Cooper Hospital is expanding its presence with a new cancer center opening this fall. It also launched a new medical school, Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, in fall 2012. Part of the state school Rowan University, the medical school joins Rutgers University–Camden as a major higher education presence in Camden. Although state plans to merge the schools failed, they are developing stronger partnerships with each other and with Camden County College.

Not all universities face challenges this daunting. Blaik noted, for instance, that the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland, was experiencing similar problems in a very different setting – a suburb of Washington, D.C. As was the case in Detroit, the faculty and staff were not living locally, and housing stock had deteriorated from being converted to student housing.

The issue was that the institution’s image of itself – as a college in a park – did not match how the world saw it, or what it actually was: more of a university in a city, Blaik said. He recommended that the university not just undertake a rebranding, but actually reorient itself. “[The school] had been retreating from Route 1” – referring to nearby U.S. Route 1, a major thoroughfare – “and now it’s beginning to engage Route 1,” Blaik said.

“Even in a suburban setting, the density that creates vibrancy is extremely important,” Blaik said. “Place making is about the physical, but it’s also about taking economics into account.” The multiplier effect means that such changes can be very productive both for the institution and the community.

Those interested in more information on place making may be interested in purchasing “Place Making:
Developing Town Centers, Main Streets, and Urban Villages
” from the ULI Bookstore.