Monday, October 10, 2005

On the De-urbanization of Campus Life

On the De-urbanization of Campus Life

Lately, Urban Review - St Louis and others have remarked on the lack of connections between the Saint Louis University campus and its surrounding neighborhoods, particularly Grand Center.

I submit that part of the motivation for this relative isolation, aside from security concerns, is revenue capture.

By this I simply mean that colleges and universities, as organizations, want and need to maximize the amount of money they can bring into their own coffers. While their research may have some economic development impact, their facilities are intended for a single purpose: to support the operations of the university.

Hence, they will be designed so that students, faculty and staff will spend most of their money and time on-campus, rather than off-campus. This way, on-campus business operations are more viable. The institution can circumscribe the space using fences, street closures, gatesm barricades, and the placement of buildings, to prevent campus users from exiting campus easily. And if they do, they know for certain they are leaving campus.

Washington University does this, too. While it's certainly true that The Loop is a very happening place, that's largely because there are a lot of student residences - many owned by the university - nearby. However, the Loop is about 1/2 mile north of the Hilltop Campus. It's no problem to walk to the Loop for lunch, if you have an hour or two to kill. But if you just have 10 minutes between classes, the only chance to grab a snack is on campus.

Indeed, the campus buildings are clustered such that even those businesses located near the campus boundaries - such as Kayak's Coffee on Skinker or Williams Pharmacy on Big Bend - probably get visitors before and after classes, but not necessarily between classes. They are located across pretty busy streets from campus; and even to get there, you have to cross parking areas. And even those buildings themselves are owned by the university.

The residential complex called The Village, just kitty-corner from the Williams Pharmacy shopping center, turns inside toward the campus, rather than toward the street. As a result, residents are directed toward using the campus convenience store in Seigle Commons. Further, on the south side of the Hilltop Campus, there are no off-campus retail stores, period. The surroundings in Clayton and south University City are strictly residential/ institutional.

There is no question that Washington University students, faculty and staff have a massive buying power. The university is smart to capture that buying power for its own. There are a lot of food service establishments, and some retail operations, on campus. Even when they have a familiar name, like Bank of America or Kinko's Copies, they are in university-owned space in the student center, so they must pay large leases.

Thus, it is not surprising that, when they can, universities buy up and quietly shut down nearby retail that they don't control. Remember the Marina Building, on the NE corner of Grand and Lindell? It contained several shops and a restaurant that competed with the university for student, faculty and staff business. Likewise, there was a Jack In the Box franchise next door, which SLU also acquired and demolished.

While it's true that Hi/Tec Copy Center, in the WashU-owned building on Big Bend and Forest Park, competes with FedExKinko's, the university controls the leases with both. Hence, they can determine the terms on which these firms compete for university business.

I don't claim there's anything insidious or conspiratorial about this. Universities are major players in the local economy; hence, they can pretty much dictate the terms of what kinds of businesses will or will not be located nearby.


Anonymous said...

Joe I think the land capture evidenced around SLU has more to with Biondi's leadership style as manifested by fences and columns (mine, mine, mine!) than any strategic economic development program. In this case it seems to be that the personality of the leadership has dominated short term development goals. It appears as well that the plan to redevelop the NE corner of Grand and Lindell has been off in favor of more fences--this after substantial proposals to replace the building formerly on the site. St. Louis has a real strike in local chancellors who have dominated their campuses, expanded their holdings and in the process rubbed their communities the wrong way. Of the four, I think SLU has had the least positive impact upon its neighborhood. Yet, of course..

Urban Review - St. Louis said...

pI attended the University of Oklahoma in Norman, OK. Just North of the campus is an area called "campus corner" that has all kinds of restaurants and shops. It is fun and full of life and is a big draw for potential students. While not as urban as St. Louis, Norman is an early 20th century grid-street town and the campus has been in place since 1899.

Sure, depending upon where you are on campus you'll chose to spend money on campus but it is easy to connect with the surrounding neighborhoods. It was a great place to attend school and I often walked/biked from my apartment to nearby businesses.

If SLU is using this as a strategy to capture revenue it is doing so at the detrement of both campus life and the city in general.

Joe said...

Well, I could well be way off base in my comments. I do think both SLU and WashU contribute SOMETHING to their surroundings. The question is: could they benefit the neighborhoods more? Yes, they probably could.

But, I suspect from the university administrator's point-of-view, that's not a high priority.

UMSL could be accused of the same thing - although there's never been much of interest within easy walking distance of that campus. They did buy out QuikTrip and several fast food places on Florissant Road, but I think that was mainly because of the roadway relocation project; not necessarily to get rid of competition for their very limited on-campus food service. SLU and WashU, meanwhile, have invested a lot more into on-campus food service.