Anchor districts emerge as powerful players in bid to shape new metropolis

The University Circle neighborhood of Cleveland, a hub for universities, hospitals and museums for over a century, is alive with construction. The first residents are living in the sleek Uptown community, a $44 million project that replaced a dull, outdated shopping plaza with a town center whose shops and eateries hug the street.

In East Baltimore—the home of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine—more than 1,200 new homes are springing up where doctors once complained of watching drug deals from their office windows. The $1 billion Science and Technology Park project is being developed by a group of private and institutional partners.

And in Cincinnati, the U Square @ the Loop project finally got off the ground last year after a decade of delays. The development, which is located adjacent to the University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, features 80,000 square feet of retail and 160 apartments that will serve the dense community of workers and students.

These disparate, far-flung developments all have at least one thing in common—they are being led, planned or paid for by major institutions like universities, hospitals and museums. These stakeholders, often called “anchor institutions” because of their key role in stabilizing neighborhoods, are not only drivers of job growth and innovation, but also powerful players in remaking cities into vibrant, livable places.

“Cities are back, downtowns are back and the places that we call anchor districts are leveraging growth in cities,” says Chris Ronayne, President of University Circle Inc., a nonprofit group that worked with institutions like Case Western Reserve University to bring the Cleveland Uptown project to fruition. “They’re the places shaping the new metropolis.”

Looking outward
A historic shift is occurring as anchors re-engage with communities, Ronayne says. In the not-so-distant past, big institutions like Case Western Reserve, University Hospitals and the Cleveland Clinic were criticized for being less than responsive to their neighbors. They were accused of building barricades between their campuses and surrounding, poorer neighborhoods by tearing down properties for parking lots.

The story is an old and oft-repeated one. As anchors grappled with urban blight in past decades, they retrenched and retreated inward to the point of excluding their neighbors. The question now becomes can institutions use their power to connect their neighbors to opportunity?

Can they give their neighbors a voice in planning equitable communities?

Ronayne and other anchor district leaders believe that they can—and that it’s already happening around the United States. Because of the increased knowledge that their clout can be used to better neighborhoods and, more importantly, that they are uniquely positioned to do so, institutions have become drivers of creative placemaking.   

“Anchor institutions are the engines of a new urban renaissance,” says Ronayne, citing the multi-million dollar investment of University Hospitals in purchasing services from a local, employee-owned laundry as one example of how mega-institutions can use their clout. He also cites investment in new housing, retail options and public spaces across the community as examples of how institutions are creating urban vibrancy.

Although educational and medical institutions (“eds and meds”) are now many cities’ largest employers, having one is not enough. “You have to gather them together in a multi-anchor district,” Ronayne says. “You can leverage it for all-city growth.”

All about partnerships
At a recent conference focused on how anchor districts are shaping the new metropolis, district leaders said that the key is creating real partnerships with neighbors. Two-way collaboration with local neighborhood groups is essential to creating a big impact, says David Angel, president of Clark University, who spoke in Cleveland last October.  

“While it may feel like a risky step to take, [creating partnerships] is an enormously rewarding, important step to take in fulfilling the goals of flourishing cities,” Angel says.

As an example, Angel cites the importance of nonprofit community development groups, which can serve as a conduit between large institutions and surrounding communities. Although Clark University, located in Worcester, Mass., has just one seat on the local CDC’s board of directors, the school believes in accepting community input.

“That’s actually pretty scary for someone like me that is used to managing vertical organizations," he says. "It leads to a messy process, but I have to embrace those decisions.”

The big advantage of institutions, Angel says, is that they are able to make 30 to 50 year commitments that most companies or organizations simply wouldn’t be able to make. Their financial and organizational wherewithal allows them to be patient investors.

“I’m the third university president to take part in these initiatives,” he says. “We’ve leveraged around $135 million within the community in the past few decades.”

Clark University has created a high-performing urban public school and rolled out the Promise Neighborhood Initiative, which allows any child who attends school in the neighborhood for five years and is admitted to Clark University to go for free.  

“We now see residents moving into the neighborhood, choosing to live and invest here because of the educational opportunities that are available to them,” he says. “We’re asking—'what can we do around urban public education to further leverage that?'”

Beyond town vs. gown
Of course, partnerships sound nice in theory; yet in practice, they require institutions to share decision making. That’s where the “rubber hits the road,” says Sue Mosey of Midtown Detroit Inc., the nonprofit leading revitalization of the community.

“It’s somewhat better today, but there’s an ongoing tension between communities and anchor districts,” she says. “Some anchors are embracing of true partnerships, and for others it’s really a transaction. Those of us who sit on this side”— individuals who work for neighborhood CDC’s—“know when it’s a true partnership versus just a transaction.”

So what does a true partnership look like? How are anchor institutions bridging the “town versus gown” gap between their campuses and surrounding neighborhoods?

It starts with communication—and lots of it. For instance, Johns Hopkins University met with stakeholders and residents around its Homewood campus for more than a year to identify priorities before announcing a targeted, $10 million investment in the area.

“We hired a consultant and produced a 90-page report with lots of recommendations,” says Dennis O’Shea, a spokesperson for Johns Hopkins. “We calculated it would take $60 million, and we’re contributing $10 million. We’re going to try to attract additional investment from other anchor institutions, foundations, government and individuals.”

The goal is to jumpstart investment. “If we help to get things going by building new housing, then developers will see that, see momentum and want to hop on board," O'Shea says.

Still, others argue that communication alone is not enough. Residents must have their own strong organizations to ensure that they have a seat at the decision-making table. Otherwise, there’s likelihood that institutions will make choices based on self-interest.  

Wanda Wilson is executive director of Oakland Planning and Development Corporation in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, which is home to University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and other major institutions. She says that organizations like UCI that are largely governed by institutions may not fully represent neighborhood interests.

“Our goal is to do community organizing, to make sure the voice of the community is at the table,” says Wilson. Area institutions do not have seats on her group’s board, she adds, and that’s deliberate, although she continues to work closely with anchors.

Institutions must also do more to ensure that economic opportunities reach residents of surrounding neighborhoods, Wilson says. That’s why her organization recently led the creation of the Oakland 2025 Plan, the area’s first community-driven master plan.

“We need to make sure that Oakland continues to be the engine of Pitt’s innovation economy,” she says. “Institutions need to take bold steps to help make that happen. One of our goals is to increase the number of people who live and work in Oakland.”

Untapped economic potential
Oftentimes the neighborhoods surrounding anchor districts are full of hidden economic potential, and anchor institutions can help unlock that by making strategic investments.

What’s happening in the Uptown area of Cincinnati right now offers one example. The Uptown Consortium, a community development corporation in the institution-rich neighborhood, worked tirelessly to get the U Square project underway.

“We have 50,000 employees and 50,000 residents; there’s a tremendous market here that’s untapped,” says Beth Robinson, CEO of the Uptown Consortium. “Developers hear the message and they’re coming in. We’re having a development boom now.”

Building off of Uptown’s successful low-income and market-rate housing developments in recent years, that development boom now includes $700 million worth of projects. U Square has attracted national retailers to an area once starved for stores.

If done properly, that benefit can be felt by local residents on the ground, says Robinson. “We’re working on a partnership with the Urban League of Cincinnati,” she says. “They’re sponsoring a job training class in order to prepare residents for the construction trades and place them in construction jobs around Uptown.”

Angel hears stories like this from cities across the country. “I’m convinced the role of anchor districts in driving growth in cities will be the success story of this millennium.”

By Lee Chilcote

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