A Win-Win for Campus and Community

by Stan Eckstut and Fran Rosenfeld

For decades, urban universities and hospitals have had to contend with all the perceived ills of the city — downtown decay and disinvestment, rising crime, poverty and unemployment, lack of adequate housing and green space — while enjoying few of the benefits. In many cases, institutions felt they had to turn their backs on their surrounding communities. In recent years, however, a number of institutions, including Polytechnic Institute of New York University, Rutgers University, and the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Art and Science, have moved aggressively to seize the advantages and realize the full benefits of their urban locations.

Universities and medical institutions can either be enhanced or compromised by their surroundings. A successful larger community provides the institution with a healthy, safe, and attractive context, helping to improve the campus’s own environment, security, and operations. It provides the institution with a host of services, amenities, and necessary facilities not otherwise available, such as housing, retail and entertainment, and transit. Equally importantly, a strong urban neighborhood vastly increases an institution’s ability to attract the “best and brightest.” Today’s academic and medical institutions compete with each other for the best talent who are looking for a higher quality of life and superior opportunities for learning, living, and commercializing their intellectual capital.

But building a successful larger community involves many other challenges beyond those typically associated with campus facilities and grounds. To realize the larger context, institutions need to partner with private developers, who can bring the interests of the institution and the city together. Redeveloping a community involves significantly more outreach, skills, resources, and time than hospitals and universities normally can afford to divert from their central missions of research, teaching, and medical care.

Cooperation between campus-based institutions and developers can be structured on a project-by-project basis or as long-term partnerships. University/developer partnerships can be used to address a number of intractable issues, such as connecting to transit, providing faculty and campus housing, and creating a secure and attractive downtown campus environment. Three examples are MetroTech Center in Brooklyn, NY, where the developer, Forest City Ratner, partnered with Polytechnic University (now Polytechnic Institute of NYU) and the City to create a business and educational campus in downtown Brooklyn; New Brunswick Transit Village in downtown New Brunswick, NJ, where Rutgers University partnered with the city and nonprofit developers to create a new downtown gateway to their campus; and The Cooper Union in Manhattan’s East Village, where the institution partnered with a private developer to accommodate growth within a landlocked urban context.

MetroTech Center
With its financial services industry threatening to leave and downtown business districts reeling, the 1970s and early ‘80s formed one of New York City’s most difficult chapters. In Downtown Brooklyn, as Polytechnic University contemplated abandoning its longtime campus, the City looked to new public/private models for center city redevelopment and retaining key institutions and industries. In response, Polytechnic President George Bugliarello and Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden conceived a bold vision of building a technology campus, accommodating both Polytechnic and new Class A office tenants in this failing downtown.

The result was MetroTech, a 4,700,00-sq.-ft. redevelopment that has been cited for its success by Senator Charles Schumer. The NYC Board of Estimate formalized the idea in 1987, when Polytechnic and Forest City Ratner were named the development sponsors of an office/research park. MetroTech Center was a successful effort to re-think and redefine Downtown Brooklyn through a public/private initiative to rebuild ten deteriorated blocks on the fringe of Fulton Street, its major retail center.

The Master Plan for MetroTech, created by Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Whitelaw Architects (now Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects), transformed this former fringe area of low-rise residences, churches, shops, and industry into a new hub of educational buildings and office towers organized around a 3.5 acre Commons. The Commons and the majority of the buildings surrounding it were completed and operational by 1992. Today MetroTech comprises 4,500 students (in what is now a part of NYU) and 5,800,000 sq. ft. of new commercial space with more than 20,000 employees in its 16 acres. It has proved a catalyst for additional residential and commercial development in Brooklyn’s greater downtown area.

At the heart of MetroTech is MetroTech Commons, an oasis of green serves as both a campus quad for the Polytechnic Institute and as a focus for commercial office development. As New York City’s largest privately owned public space, the Commons brings light, air, and trees into one of Brooklyn’s densest pockets of urban fabric and provides a central space for public gatherings, small and large. It has become a popular venue for festivals, concerts, and graduation ceremonies. Neighboring cultural institutions — such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and the Public Art Fund — organize seasonal music festivals and art exhibitions here that draw a diverse audience. MetroTech Center’s seamless integration into the fabric of downtown Brooklyn is highlighted by a three-block-long promenade and continuous arcade. Its success has spurred an additional 1,000,000 sq. ft. of development in downtown Brooklyn; according to Crain’s New York Business, “It is not an exaggeration to say that MetroTech saved the borough’s economy.”

New Brunswick Transit Village
A different kind of university/developer partnership can be seen at work in New Brunswick, NJ, where Rutgers University has partnered with private developers and DEVCO, a not-for-profit downtown economic development corporation, to revitalize downtown New Brunswick and enhance the connection between public transit, downtown, and the campus area. Currently under construction, the New Brunswick Transit Village (NBTV) is a 24-story, mixed-use building and a new pedestrian walkway directly adjacent to a NJ Transit/Amtrak station. The development recaptures a pivotal but underutilized site between downtown New Brunswick and the oldest portion of the Rutgers University campus, and establishes a new and pedestrian-friendly retail, residential, and commercial destination in the area.

The NBTV building provides street-level retail space for several tenants, including the Rutgers University Bookstore, five stories (50,000 sq. ft.) of office space, and a 656-car parking garage behind the retail and commercial space serving the train station. It is topped by a 15-story, 200-unit condominium tower offering views of the Raritan River. On the northeastern side of the NBTV tower, a broad new walkway connects the train station with College Avenue and the Old Queen’s campus, while simultaneously providing a gracious new public space and landing point for visitors arriving in downtown New Brunswick via train. The overall development creates a much-needed connection between downtown, the train station, and the historic portion of the Rutgers campus.

The Cooper Union
Founded on the radical notion that education of the highest quality should be “as free as air and water,” The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Art and Science occupies a unique place in American higher education. But amidst an increasingly dynamic real estate market, Cooper Union’s ability to maintain its historic mission became linked to its ability to leverage its increasingly valuable real estate holdings in its East Village neighborhood. With plans to modernize and expand their aging academic facilities stalled, Cooper Union needed a new vision and campus plan to move forward confidently into the 21st century. The institute asked Ekrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects (EE&K) to forge consensus around a framework for development of a new academic building and a privately developed mixed-use project.

EE&K’s massing strategy addressed the differences between the larger scale of the north-south avenues and the East Village’s more intimate side streets. Guidelines were also developed to ensure that the new buildings would engage Cooper Square and Astor Place, two of New York’s most vibrant and idiosyncratic public spaces. The success of the plan allowed Cooper Union to win long-sought approval for the rezoning of the two parcels. The plan’s subsequent implementation culminated with the unveiling of a new mixed-use development project and opening of 41 Cooper Square, a state-of-the-art academic building.

At MetroTech Center, New Brunswick Transit Village, and The Cooper Union, each university partnered in various ways with private developers as well as non-profit and municipal development agencies to expand and improve their own campuses, and to assert control and influence over their larger urban settings. In different ways, they each demonstrate how joining forces with the private sector can provide a quicker, more efficient and higher-quality approach to securing the requisite experience, skills, and resources for a well-rounded campus neighborhood, even in the heart of the city.

Stan Eckstut, EE&K’s senior principal, has a national reputation as an innovator and leader in large-scale architecture extending back over 30 years to his pioneering work designing the master plan for Battery Park City. Stan’s singular understanding of architecture as a practice that creates and sustains the public realm is evident in all his designs. Fran Rosenfeld is a writer and research associate at EE&K.

College Planning & Management, June 2010