Baltimore colleges push to improve neighborhoods

Change has swept through the University of Baltimore — and the surrounding neighborhood — over the past decade. Striking new academic buildings, an apartment building and the university's first dormitory have appeared among the brownstones of the Midtown neighborhood. New shops and restaurants brighten once-dingy blocks. Streets that were deserted after dark now buzz with students.

"It seems more like a university environment now," said Earl Spain, 59, who completed his bachelor's degree at UB in 2002 and is working on a master's in criminal justice. "There's a lot more going on around here. You can get a coffee here, go to the Barnes & Noble."

Across the city, colleges and universities are working to revitalize neighborhoods surrounding their campuses — pushing development in flagging areas, guiding community projects and organizing programs to improve education, health care and even housing for nearby residents. Last month, the Johns Hopkins University announced an ambitious plan to bolster neighborhoods near the Homewood campus — including a $10 million gift.

In Baltimore, where most manufacturing plants shut down decades ago and the last Fortune 500 headquarters decamped in 2011, universities represent one of the city's best hopes for revitalization and growth, officials at cash-strapped City Hall acknowledge.

The motivations are both altruistic and practical, and sometimes questioned by residents who say they don't reap enough of the economic benefits. But unlike big redevelopment projects that gentrify an area, pushing poorer residents and lower-end stores to other parts of the city, these so-called anchor institutions — a phrase coined by a Harvard Business School professor a decade ago — aim to rebuild while also helping downtrodden neighbors.

"Institutions have come to the realization that their success, and their viability as a business, is inextricably tied to the success or failure of the communities in which they're based," said Ted Howard, a University of Maryland researcher who studies anchor institutions.

"Anchor institutions are, to a city like Baltimore in 2012 or 2013, what manufacturers were 100 years ago. They're the biggest employers, biggest purchasers," said Howard, director of the university's Democracy Collaborative.

The Maryland Institute College of Art was among the first Baltimore institutions to draw up a comprehensive anchor strategy. More than a decade ago, university trustees drafting a strategic plan came to the realization that the city's persistent problems — crime, vacant houses, drug abuse — could deter students from choosing MICA.

"What happens in our city, especially in our neighborhoods, is really crucial to our ability to attract and retain students," said MICA President Fred Lazarus IV. "If we don't step forward and things really deteriorate, it's going to be a problem. We can't be passive observers."

Since then, MICA has led the transformation of a once-derelict stretch of North Avenue and students have helped city residents paint murals and cultivate community farms. The college awarded grants to 32 community projects last year, oversees an Americorps volunteer program and is working to create a map of social-justice projects across the city.

Hundreds of students and alumni volunteers have taught art classes at nearby schools, homeless shelters and senior centers.

Michelle Luong, 21, who graduated in May, led students in an after-school program at John Eager Howard Elementary on a recent afternoon.

Parents said the program helps their children see beyond the confines of their Reservoir Hill neighborhood.

"They're teaching kids more about the outside world," said Kelly Stuart, whose 10-year-old grandson, Antwain Stuart, was sprawled out coloring a circular emblem. "He's opened up a lot since he started the classes."

The scope of similar programs at other colleges and universities varies widely and depends on the size and wealth of the schools and the needs in their surrounding communities.

Initiatives include Loyola University Maryland's efforts to deploy students and faculty to enhance the York Road corridor and Hopkins' major redevelopment project in East Baltimore. Some schools, such as the University of Baltimore, have focused on strategic development to enhance neighborhoods, while others, like Coppin State, are rebuilding homes near the campus.

Not all such efforts have been well-received.

Hopkins' $1.8 billion East Baltimore Development Initiative to redevelop blighted blocks around the hospital campus displaced hundreds of residents and has drawn criticism from East Baltimore politicians who say the project has not generated enough local jobs. The Hopkins Institutions are building a biopark and have partnered with Morgan State University to run the East Baltimore Community School.

And at least one local politician has rebuked Coppin's president — who is stepping down this year — for being too focused on the neighborhoods around the campus.

But economists and civic leaders say universities, hospitals and other nonprofits offer the best prospects for cities in the post-industrial age.

For decades, companies — particularly manufacturers — were the largest employers in cities such as Baltimore. They dominated civic life, providing housing and health care and social activities for workers. But many businesses have shifted manufacturing operations overseas.

"The future of cities will depend significantly on eds and meds" — universities and hospitals — "to play central roles in revitalization," said Ira Harkavy, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Unlike companies, "colleges and universities are rooted institutions that are not leaving the cities that they are part of," said Harkavy, who directs the university's Netter Center for Community Partnerships. "Eds and meds dominate employment, purchasing and cultural development. They also bring the incredible intellectual and creative abilities of faculty, staff and students."

For Baltimore, which has lost more than a dozen corporate headquarters in the past two decades, universities and hospitals are vital to the economy.

As universities and hospitals seek to address such challenges, they're breaking down traditional barriers between their campuses and the surrounding neighborhoods. "In many cities, the large universities and hospitals have, in a sense, been walled off from the communities around them. There's a history of distrust or antagonism," said Howard, of the Democracy Project.

Dr. Jay Perman, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, said the university aims to make the west-side campus welcoming for nearby residents while making faculty, staff, students and patients feel safe in the neighboring areas. "We are of the community," he said. "Like members of any community, we have a responsibility for it."

Students and staff are working in three nearby elementary schools and a high school to encourage students to seek careers in health and human services. At the Lexington Market, a few blocks from campus, social work students inform drug addicts of treatment options and law students host clinics for those seeking legal advice.

Perman co-chairs a city task force overseeing the redevelopment of the west side, an area that has seen rapid growth over the past several years — including new apartment buildings and the Hippodrome Theatre — but also has confronted legal and logistical challenges related to a large parcel known as the Superblock.

A few miles away, Coppin State razed a strip of blighted homes late last year to make way for a new science and technology center. Plans are under way to turn other vacant or blighted homes into student housing and offices for student organizations.

While the north end of campus fronts tidy homes and the bustling Mondawmin Mall, drivers pass blocks of burned-out homes and businesses as they approach the southern side of the campus, where the university is focusing its efforts.

Gary Rodwell, Coppin's associate vice president for community development, said university leaders believe the health of the surrounding West Baltimore neighborhood is key to Coppin's success. "Our competitiveness as an institution is linked to the vitality of the community," he said.

Coppin also hopes to turn the nearby old Hebrew Orphanage Asylum into a behavioral health clinic, dental clinic, pharmacy and a health food market. The surrounding neighborhoods are considered a food desert — only liquor stores and carry-out restaurants sell food — and residents have some of the shortest life expectancies in the city.

Kaliope Parthemos, the city's economic development chief, describes the universities' and hospitals' changing role as "a sea change."

"The institutions have realized the importance of their role and how important the community around them is for their success," she said.

City officials are working to coordinate the actions of anchor institutions to "make sure we're on the same page with investments and goals," Parthemos said. They're leading discussions among anchor institutions located near each other, such as Loyola and Morgan State, which is in the early phases of planning the "Morgan Community Mile," an effort to improve areas within a mile of the campus.

Morgan officials broke ground late last year for a $72 million business school — the first of three buildings planned on a tract near a rundown shopping center where a former city councilman was killed in 2007.

Morgan President David Wilson has called for more businesses that cater to students and professors near the campus — places to get coffee and a sandwich. He also wants to direct faculty and student volunteer efforts to improve surrounding neighborhoods.

Loyola's York Road Initiative grew from the university's commitment to Catholic values and a desire to strengthen troubled neighborhoods around the North Baltimore campus. While most of Loyola's campus winds through affluent areas along Charles Street and Cold Spring Lane, some student housing and other buildings lie closer to a depressed stretch of York Road.

"It's our moral obligation as a Jesuit university, but it also drives the quality of life for our students, faculty members and parents," said Erin O'Keefe, who has directed the initiative since its inception in 2010.

The university has opened offices where graduate students — with supervision — provide mental health care, pastoral counseling and audiology services. After residents raised concerns about a lack of grocery stores, Loyola started a farmers' market on a university-owned lot.

Some business students are helping shops along York Road with marketing plans and facade improvements. Others are working with parents to make a recreation center that was recently threatened with closure self-sustaining.

A few miles to the south, Hopkins' plan will combine student-led projects and $10 million in grants for community projects with efforts to hire more city residents and buy more goods locally.

Local hiring and purchasing can make a marked improvement on a city's economy, said Howard, the University of Maryland researcher. Across the country, hospitals and universities spend about $1.6 trillion on goods annually — not counting construction materials or services.

Hopkins will work in 10 communities that flank the campus and stretch to Penn Station — where MICA's and the University of Baltimore's projects converge. MICA and Hopkins have also collaborated, teaming with the Maryland Film Festival to renovate the long-vacant Parkway Theater on North Avenue. Farther west on North Avenue sits MICA's recently completed Studio Center, a former factory turned into galleries and studios. Theaters, restaurants and bars that cater to youthful, artsy clients have sprouted along the block over the past decade.

Just to the south, University of Baltimore officials have spent about $250 million over the past decade constructing and renovating buildings, stretching the campus to the south and west. A new student center, an apartment tower and the university's first dorm have gone up, and a 12-story law center is to open in the spring near Penn Station.

The university has teamed with the city to get Zipcars and bike racks in the area and has taken over landscaping city-owned green spaces.

Shirley Carr, 32, a master's student in publication design, moved to Mount Vernon to be closer to UB.

"I feel safe walking around here, even at night," she said.

Business owners say they are grateful for the influx of new residents. At OK Natural Foods, a clerk said business is booming and the tiny health food store had its highest grossing day in its 34-year history last month.

"It all begins by thinking people should work and live in a space that they enjoy working and living in," said University President Robert L. Bogomolny. "We decided that the university would do things that are good for the university but also would do things that were good for the community. If Baltimore City gets better, University of Baltimore gets better. If University of Baltimore gets better, Baltimore City gets better."

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