The Good, Bad and Ugly of Downtown Universities

No matter how big or small your town is, its growth, success and quality of life is often shaped by the major employers who make it their home. And when it comes to major employers, few have quite the impact of a large college or university—whose reach usually extends well beyond the campus boundaries to influence the life of the whole community.

This is especially true where the university exists in an urban setting, in or adjacent to downtown or close-in residential neighborhoods. In these situations, growth and development are usually more effective when the city government and the university can operate in harmony.

In Akron, Ohio, this hasn’t always been the case, even though the relationship has been relatively close over most of the last 150 years.

A Little World of its Own

Buchtel College was originally established in 1870, and in 1913 the trustees transferred the college and all its assets to the city, becoming the Municipal University of Akron. The school continued to grow significantly through the 20th century and became a state university in 1967. Today, with an enrollment of almost 22,000, the University of Akron dominates the area just east of downtown and, through significant expansions over the last 30 years, now reaches right into the heart of downtown Akron’s Main Street.

Large auto-oriented university dorms and parking ramps flank this fast-moving stroad with little in the way of street-level activity or life. (Source: Google Maps)

Large auto-oriented university dorms and parking ramps flank this fast-moving stroad with little in the way of street-level activity or life. (Source: Google Maps)

U of A serves as one of the largest employers in this city of almost 200,000 people and has a major role to play in the continuing development of Akron’s urban center. But that doesn't mean the city and the University have always been on the same page. Where some university-focused growth may have offered great promise in adding vitality and economic growth downtown, much has fallen short of expectations.

For example, though the south end of downtown is dominated by large-scale, privately-built student housing, the presence of these young residents is barely felt in the area, aside from the few bars they happen to frequent on the weekends. Part of this may be because most of their housing fronts heavily-trafficked, one-way stroads that aren’t pedestrian friendly, featuring fortress-like buildings with little street-level interest.

In 1987, the University acquired the Polsky building on Main Street—once one of the city’s major department stores located at the center of downtown. Over the years, it has been transformed to include classrooms, a bookstore and offices which are visited by approximately 5,000 people each weekday. Yet the building essentially turns its back on Main Street, with entrances there that see little traffic and decorated windows that offer no clue as to what may be going on inside the building.

In a similar example, the University purchased the Quaker Square shopping, dining and hotel complex in 2007, and turned the hotel (which had been created in old grain silos) into student housing. Though the University has at least managed to preserve a historic downtown complex that had lost much of its luster since opening in the 1970’s, the rest of the facility is now little used, aside from the occasional meeting or conference.

Over the past 40 years, there's been a feeling in the community that “the University just does whatever it wants,” said one city council member, off the record. One prime example of the lack of communication was in 2014, when the school’s board of trustees announced a plan to build an all-new basketball arena in downtown, financed by a sales tax increase—one that had not yet even made it to the ballot. Though they were big supporters of the project, both the city and county administrations were incensed that the University had announced the plan well before they had time to introduce the idea to the public and get community leaders lined up behind it. As a result, the proposal met significant resistance and was quickly withdrawn from the ballot.

“It probably seems natural for a major facility like a university to see itself as primarily a campus—a little world of its own,” notes Akron planning director Jason Segedy. “But we’re looking at ways to ensure that the university campus and the downtown core don’t feel so separated. We want students to feel welcome downtown; we also want people who work downtown to feel that the area around the campus is accessible to them as well.”

The seeming lack of communication between the city and the school may be surprising. But the fact that Akron’s city government has been dominated by Democrats for the last 35 years and the University Board has long been controlled by Republicans may be part of the problem. An analysis of the past 40 years indicates little desire to build a strong town-gown partnerships or willingness to work together in a way that will have a lasting and positive impact on downtown’s physical development.

City + University Partnerships That Work

How can the relationship between the city and the university be improved? Fortunately, there are some great examples of cities and universities working closely together to get the maximum benefit out of expansion and development. As detailed in previous Strong Towns stories, Fargo, North Dakota has taken advantage of the expansion of North Dakota State University (NDSU) to enliven the core of downtown, bringing a 104 unit mixed-use housing development into the area and integrating both students and faculty into its social fabric. They also eliminated minimum parking requirements and encouraged multi-modal transportation options that younger people are more inclined to use.

Renaissance Hall in downtown Moorhead is a former warehouse that's been transformed into a state-of-the-art facility housing North Dakota State's visual arts department and other university offices. (Source: Kilbourne Group)

Renaissance Hall in downtown Moorhead is a former warehouse that's been transformed into a state-of-the-art facility housing North Dakota State's visual arts department and other university offices. (Source: Kilbourne Group)

Like Akron, the Fargo-Moorhead area is home to approximately 22,000 college students, but the strong working relationship and drive to cooperate has ensured that the students are fully integrated into the life of the downtown area. 

“When a private developer wanted to rehabilitate a dilapidated historic downtown building, NDSU made the decision to move the Arts and Architecture departments to that building—now known as Renaissance Hall,” explained Mike Williams, a former city commissioner. “Now there are 3,700 students taking classes at Renaissance Hall, and two more buildings that have been revitalized and converted to house the School of Business and Landscape Architecture.”

Sometimes, city-college cooperation goes beyond development. In South Bend Indiana, Notre Dame University and the city have joined together with a network of over 20 other communities to form the MetroLab Network, a consortium of university-city partnerships that will collaborate on long-range strategic planning in order to develop new ways to build infrastructure, improve city services and use technology to deliver other civic solutions.

“This initiative puts South Bend on the national map for building one of the most advanced university-city relationships in the country. It’s an opportunity to use new technologies and ideas to deliver faster, better, less costly services for residents,” said Mayor Pete Buttigieg when the partnership was announced. “Partnering with Notre Dame, South Bend will tap into cutting-edge thinking to provide a high quality of life and keep adding jobs in an era of tight budgets and scarce resources. This is the future of what it means to be a university city.”

Just nine miles northeast of Akron, the city of Kent, Ohio has also forged a strong relationship with Kent State University. That’s had a marked impact on not only the look of the downtown area, but also on economic development throughout the region. The impressive results are one of the reasons why Kent was a finalist in the 2018 Strong Towns competition.

“Early on, both the University and the city recognized that a vibrant downtown was essential in supporting and attracting KSU students, families and visitors to the community” explains Kelvin Berry, KSU Director of Economic Development and Community Engagement. “We established a public-private partnership to develop the downtown, including private developers and the Portage County Transit Authority. This allowed the university to garner $44 million in state and federal investment—then leverage those funds to attract another $90 million in private investment.”

Even after the downtown was transformed, the partners continue to meet twice a month and engage the wider community. As a result, they’ve been able to build on these successful relationships to identify and solve community problems together. 

“Our goal was to create a walkable neighborhood, share a common vision of sustainability and carry it out through an effective master plan,” adds Berry. “As a result, we’ve been able to add 233,000 square feet of new office, retail and restaurant space, renovate a historic hotel into office and retail, develop a KSU Hotel and Conference Center, create a multi-modal transportation hub and a paved esplanade linking the north edge of campus to the central business district.”

Connecting City and University for a Stronger Akron

These are just some of the ways close partnerships between towns and their universities can not only improve the physical environment, but also the quality of life for both students and residents. The key to success seems to be openness, a common and creative vision, and a willingness to work together to maximize everyone’s hard work and investment in the community.

“Our current planning goal is to make the connection between the University of Akron campus and the downtown area more permeable,” says Akron’s Jason Segedy. “We want to encourage more natural interaction, and we have some initiatives in the works that we believe can make that happen—not only towards downtown, but in the area south of campus, too.”

About 30 years ago, the effort to promote the university’s extension into downtown was known as Span the Tracks. While it got off to a solid start, the overall effect has yet to truly impact life on Akron’s Main Street. With new leadership, new approaches to urban development and a new spirit of cooperation, positive results may be more apparent over the coming years.

(Top photo by Shane Wynn via AkronStock)

This essay is part of an ongoing engagement with Akron, Ohio, supported by the Knight Foundation. Learn more about it here.