How Academic Hubs Revitalize the Urban Core

Yardi’s Doug Ressler examines colleges’ transformative impact on city centers.

Doug Ressler

A 2021 study by the Brookings Institution suggests that reinvesting in urban cores can revitalize entire regions.

Analyzing urban-to-suburban population shifts over the last 70 years, the study concludes that wealth and jobs moved out of central American cities, leaving behind segregated, disinvested communities. And it suggests that a solution may be found through a broader coalition of pro-growth as well as racial and environmental justice groups to advance regionwide prosperity through reinvesting in urban cores.

Academic centers, institutions of higher education located in or near urban areas, have been playing a powerful and significant role in revitalizing central city cores, which are the historical and functional centers of urban regions. When universities and colleges invest in the urban core, they advance economic development, social justice and urban renewal by:

  • Attracting students, faculty and staff who live, work and spend money in the city, creating a demand for housing, services and amenities;
  • Providing education, research and innovation that can foster economic development, entrepreneurship and job creation in the city and beyond;
  • Engaging with the local community and stakeholders, offering cultural, social and civic activities and programs that enhance the quality of life and social cohesion in the city;
  • Improving the physical environment and infrastructure of the city, through campus planning, design and maintenance, as well as partnerships with public and private entities.

New structures and students

A 2018 report by provided examples of 20 American downtowns being transformed by universities expanding their downtown campuses and making new investments where nothing existed before. And there are many other and more recent examples of universities and colleges contributing to urban regeneration and enhancing the lives of residents:

  • The University of Pennsylvania has implemented various initiatives to improve safety, housing, retail and public spaces in the surrounding West Philadelphia neighborhood.
  • The University of Toronto, which has integrated its campus with the downtown core, has created a vibrant and diverse urban environment that supports academic, cultural and recreational activities.
  • UCLA expanded its presence in the city center by acquiring the landmark Trust Building on Spring Street in Downtown Los Angeles.
  • ASU opened a DTLA campus in the Herald Examiner Building and established partnerships with local businesses and non-profits.
  • Norwich University renovated and added historic buildings to its central campus in Northfield, Vt., and celebrated its 200th anniversary.
  • USC launched a street medicine program to provide direct services to unsheltered Angelenos through its Keck School of Medicine.
  • Cal State LA opened a Downtown campus to work closely with local area businesses, government agencies and non-profits.
  • And the new University of California system recently confirmed it is considering the request from San Francisco Mayor London Breed to bring a campus to the heart of the city as part of an effort to revitalize the downtown San Francisco area.

Academic centers also bring vibrancy by bringing in new residents. A recent Yardi Matrix report highlighted the strength of student housing relative to other apartment types: “Despite slowing rent growth overall, 4.9 percent in December 2023 compares to the sector average of 3.2 percent going back to the beginning of 2018 and is well ahead of other property types that Yardi Matrix tracks. With preleasing off to another record start this year, rent growth should remain above average throughout the leasing season…”

Source: Yardi Matrix

The principled approach

The subject of urban renewal is in the spotlight again since, four years after the start of the pandemic, downtowns are still short of office workers and foot traffic. According to Moody’s Analytics, companies gave back over 65 million square feet of office space in 2023, bringing the total to over 180 million square feet since the beginning of 2020. By comparison, 50 million square feet of office space were vacated during the Great Recession and 65 million square feet were vacated during the dot-com crash.

Increased office vacancy rates and lower office utilization are contributing to significant city budget problems in some cities, and these budget woes have been masked up to this point primarily due to the additional federal aid. But the federal source of funds is ending, and central city downtowns present a major drag on local government finance.

Given the challenges, cities are trying to reinvent or rethink their downtowns. Cities such as Boston, Minneapolis and Dallas, for example, are offering major tax incentives for conversions of office space into residences. Smaller older office buildings and relaxed zoning restrictions are keys to conversion.

A 2021 article on explores the principles of ReUrbanism, and how an adaptive re-use plan at the city scale can bring economic and social benefits that go far beyond preserving and adapting individual assets.

A global concern

Central city center cores and their growth is an international phenomenon. Taxation policies, retail and transportation infrastructure have been built to support central city cores on the premise that the central city would grow, and the elements that built the growth would continue without interruption. The Brookings article mentioned above examines change in the elements contributing to this growth premise, which they believe had its origins beginning in the 1950s and was exposed by the pandemic.

A 2016 paper City Centers as Urban Growth Cores by Hoshiar Nooraddin, PhD, School of Architecture and Interior Design, Canadian University Dubai discusses three city center models: Brasilia, Oslo and Dubai, each of which has attempted to generate urban growth through a different strategies.

Placing academic institutions in distressed urban cores could supplement policy recommendations, partnerships, provide assistance with real-time knowledge of market trends and act as a significant source of economic diversity. However, the strategies and outcomes will vary based on the specific context and approaches taken.

Doug Ressler is senior research officer, Yardi Matrix.

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