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Colleges Offer Lesson In City Revitalization


April 19, 2009

The revival of many U.S. cities over the past decade is often credited to "eds and meds," expansion or development by educational or medical institutions. One of the more dramatic examples in the "ed" category can be found at a well-known school in the Triangle area of North Carolina.

Throughout most of its history, Duke University had been located in sprawling campuses in Durham's western suburbs. However, in 2004 the university made a historic move into downtown Durham by becoming a major tenant in the city's American Tobacco Historic District, Brightleaf Square and West Village projects, all new, mixed-used developments that have taken advantage of Durham's rich industrial architecture from its old tobacco days.

Through this strategic move, Duke has contributed heavily to the rehabilitation of Durham. Nearly every university office and program that can work productively away from Duke's traditional campuses now resides downtown. By this month, the university will occupy more than 600,000 square feet downtown with an employee base of 1,900 people. At the same time, the university has contributed millions of dollars to new downtown projects such as the Durham Performing Arts Center and various other city programs.

Within the American Tobacco Historic District alone, the largest of the three downtown projects, Duke is the main tenant, with more than 250,000 square feet within the historic complex and new infill office buildings around the complex.

A few blocks west and south of the American Tobacco Historic District is Brightleaf Square and West Village, which together form the two other vibrant mixed-use nodes downtown that include Duke's university architect office and office for demographic studies.

With each new move downtown, Duke has created a dynamic in Durham where employees of the university can now live, work and play in these new vibrant urban neighborhoods without ever needing a car for commuting and other daily tasks. At the same time, the city transit authority is slated to start a new free circulator bus that will link the downtown nodes with the Duke campuses, thus further reducing the need for car use in the city and creating a new, easy-to-follow and easy-to-use local bus corridor.

Plus, the circulator will link to the city's new downtown transportation center adjacent to the city's existing Amtrak station, thus tying together every new urban project in the city with Durham's transit services.

After just five years, the Duke model is slowly making its way to other parts of the United States including our own backyard.

For New York's and Southern New England's many suburban campuses and frayed industrial centers, the Duke model almost seems a natural. From Rhode Island School of Design's gradual shift into and reuse of downtown Providence, to the University of Massachusetts's shift into and reuse of the Wannalancit Mill complex for its Lowell campus, to Rensselaer's shift into and reuse of downtown Troy, N.Y., the trend seems to be building.

In Connecticut, with Yale's renewed interest in the former Winchester Arms complex as part of its Science Park development and the University of Hartford's conversion of a city car dealership into its new performing arts center, things seem to moving in the right direction as well. However, there's so much more Connecticut can do.

Just like Duke, UConn can build up its urban image by moving entities such as its urban and community studies program and transportation institute into Hartford, where they'll benefit from being in an urban environment.

At the same time, institutions such as Trinity College, the University of Hartford, Rensselaer Hartford, Fairfield University, Connecticut College, Wesleyan and the state's university system can move closer into their respective cities' urban cores and use the mainly untapped historic industrial architecture in each community. To make this work, Connecticut needs to get its act together when it comes to easy-to-use local bus transit and regional rail transit.

If we understand that Connecticut's historic urban landscape can accommodate new academic uses, we can emulate the Duke model from Hartford to Bridgeport and make the state a stronger collection of urban adaptive-reuse communities.

Nicholas Caruso is working on a master's degree in architecture at Yale University.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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