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Baltimore and beyond: How anchor institutions are shaping cities

A crane works at Johns Hopkins University
A crane works at Johns Hopkins University - Steve Ruark
Near Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus, school and community leaders envision bringing 3,000 families to surrounding neighborhoods within 10 years. The university — Baltimore City’s largest employer — has committed $10 million to the plan and wants to raise another $60 million from foundations, banks, businesses and individuals to improve schools and foster new housing and retail developments.

Cincinnati’s U Square @ the Loop debuted with 80,000 square feet of retail and 160 apartments serving area workers and students. A new hotel and conference center is coming to Oakland, an area that is home to the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, museums, stores and restaurants.

These disparate, far-flung developments all have at least one thing in common: They are being led, planned or paid for by universities, hospitals and museums. These organizations — often called “anchor institutions” because of their key role in stabilizing neighborhoods — are increasingly becoming catalysts in making their communities more vibrant, livable places at a time when many cities are growing. Baltimore City’s population grew for the first time in 60 years, according to recent U.S. Census Bureau data.

“Cities are back, downtowns are back, and the places that we call anchor districts are leveraging growth in cities,” says Chris Ronayne, president of Cleveland nonprofit University Circle Inc. “They’re the places shaping the new metropolis.” University Circle worked with Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University to bring a $44 million housing and retail project known as Uptown to fruition.
Looking outward

Big institutions have often been criticized for being less than responsive to their neighbors. Residents and community leaders accused them of building barricades between their campuses and surrounding, poorer neighborhoods by tearing down properties.  The story is an old and often-repeated one. As anchors grappled with urban blight in past decades, they retrenched inward to the point of excluding their neighbors.

That’s the case in East Baltimore, where residents have criticized Johns Hopkins and its partners for displacing residents and failing to hire more locals in the massive $1.8 billion urban redevelopment project near its hospital and medical school. President Ronald J. Daniels has pledged to keep the project moving forward, in spite of these stumbling blocks and has publicly stated that his own success as president of Baltimore’s largest employer will depend on whether the 88-acre project succeeds.

Work continues on the project. A $43 million elementary school and early childhood center, the Henderson-Hopkins School, will open in the fall. Cuban Revolution Restaurant & Bar opened last month in the John G. Rangos Sr. biotech building. Teavolve will join it in a couple of months when the Harbor East café opens its second Baltimore location. Johns Hopkins also contributed $300,000 toward the $2 million facelift of the Northeast Market. In January, the city approved a new master plan that includes a hotel overlooking a six-acre park in the redevelopment.

Forging Partnerships

At a recent Ohio conference focused on how anchor institutions are shaping the new metropolis, leaders said that the key is fostering two-way collaboration with local neighborhoods. Of course, partnerships sound nice in theory; yet in practice, they require institutions to share decision-making.

How are anchor institutions bridging the gap between their campuses and surrounding neighborhoods?

It starts with lots of communication. For instance, Johns Hopkins University met with residents and community leaders around its Homewood campus for more than a year before announcing its $10 million commitment late last year.

The resulting 95-page report, prepared by Central Baltimore Partnership Executive Director Joseph B. McNeely, outlined a set of recommendations on how to improve public schools, spur retail development, boost home values and encourage investment in residential and commercial properties in the 10 neighborhood surrounding Hopkins’ Homewood campus. 

Still, others argue that communication alone is not enough. Residents must have their own organizations that represent their interests. 

“Our goal is to do community organizing, to make sure the voice of the community is at the table,” says Wanda Wilson, executive director of Oakland Planning and Development Corp. in Pittsburgh. If big institutions lead decision-making, they may not serve residents’ interests.

Andrew B. Frank, Hopkins’ economic development advisor, candidly says that the university is, in fact, acting in its self-interest.

“In saying that we had the potential to be disarming,” Frank says. “We’re looking at where our interests align with the community’s interests.” Those interests include better schools, retail and inclusion of the local workforce.

The idea is to make the surrounding area safer so Hopkins has a competitive edge over, say the University of Pennsylvania, when recruiting faculty, or convincing high school seniors to come to Baltimore instead of Philadelphia.

Students in the future will hopefully feel safe walking 12 blocks south to view a student-made film in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, or 10 blocks east to Greenmount Avenue. Currently, students get the message that they shouldn’t wander any further east than Guilford Street, six blocks away, or beyond 28th Street, five blocks south.

“We’ll expand the experience of students. We’ll have accomplished something if we can do that," says JHU's Andrew B. Frank.
Community organizers say they have been sprucing up the neighborhoods surrounding Hopkins’ Homewood campus for years. But having Hopkins put its political and intellectual weight behind the efforts should make raising money, aiding schools and developers a little easier.

“It’s a heck of a lot easier to do if you have Hopkins with you,” says Karen Stokes, executive director of the Greater Homewood Community Corp.

Stokes says community leaders have formed an advisory group that will meet quarterly and make sure Hopkins is accountable. “They made a promise to the community so we want to make sure that really happens. How do we move the agenda?”

Naturally, some people will still need convincing, Frank says. “There’s always a little cynicism when dealing with a large institution.”

Lee Chilcote is editor of hiVelocity, a sister publication in Ohio. Julekha Dash is editor of BmoreMedia. 

Pittsburgh photographs by S. Rick Armstrong

Click photos to read captions.

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