Renewing cities with school developmentColleges hope to connect with their urban settings through major expansions
At the New Jersey Institute of Technology, construction crews are six months into a project that will add 600 beds to its stock of housing by next fall, allowing the Newark university to raise its on-campus student population by 35 percent.
But while the development, known as Warren Street Village, will fulfill a key need for NJIT, university leaders say it's merely one piece of a vision to transform the city's University Heights section. The plan is the start of the 23-acre Gateway Development Project, a public-private effort that will bring housing, retail and other components to the neighborhood, to better integrate campus and city over the next decade.
"I think what we are going to do is expand the definition of campus," said Monique King-Viehland, president of Campus Gateway Development Corp. at NJIT. "And we are working to remove any kind of artificial boundaries that may have existed, and expand what we view as the place that students call home."
The project is one of many expansions under way or in the pipeline at urban colleges and universities across New Jersey. While the plans range in scale — from renovations to redevelopment — officials and businesses involved with the efforts hope to modernize their facilities and connect their institutions with the cities that surround them.
In Jersey City, leaders at New Jersey City University hope to proceed on a long-awaited plan to double the size of its land-locked campus, said Merilee Meacock, an architect working on the project. The plan calls for redeveloping a 21-acre former industrial neighborhood on the city's west side with some 400 units of housing, four educational buildings and more than 200,000 square feet of retail.
The university would take a major step forward as a result, Meacock said, but NJCU is equally set on having its new facilities engage the dense neighborhoods around it. One of the project's earliest phases, completed in 2003, saw the university renovate a defunct laundry building into a 60,000-square-foot charter school, business incubator and theater.
Still, the conversion is one of the only pieces of completed work in the project, which is more than 10 years old and has been set back by the struggling economy. Meacock, a partner at KSS Architects, said the school hopes to change that soon, after an environmental cleanup project at the site that is expected to take about another year.
"At that point, I think they'll start to decide which pieces of the project they can move ahead with financially, and then start with a small phase of the project," Meacock said. "Once you get the ball rolling with a development like this, the other phases fall in line shortly thereafter."
She said student housing and retail that could support the neighborhood are among the most immediate needs.
Financing has been an issue for other urban institutions looking to expand in the state. At NJIT, planners of Warren Street Village are bonding for $70 million — rather than be considered for the state's Urban Transit Hub tax credit program — after the Economic Development Authority in February froze more than a dozen projects in its pipeline.
But with the growing needs to raise their schools' profiles and be greater resources for their home cities, academic leaders say they're unable to pass on expansions. At Mercer County Community College, which has campuses in West Windsor and Trenton, officials have been focused on the latter through new course offerings and physical upgrades.
"We know we have a lot of people in Trenton who need more education to be productive, to be contributing citizens and to really be an active part of the community," said Patricia Donohue, the college's president. The school meets many of those needs through adult basic education and English as a second language courses, she said, but students, residents and other stakeholder groups have been calling for more degree opportunities at what is known as its James Kerney Campus.
The college late last month marked the opening of Trenton Hall, its new academic building with laboratories and studios for its new fashion and art programs. Donohue said the facility, a former furniture store on North Broad Street, was renovated in a $1.6 million project and is the right fit for "a program that belongs in the city."
The decision to interact with the city is a change for some urban colleges, said John D.S. Hatch, a Clarke, Caton, Hintz principal who is working on Mercer County's expansion. Like other institutions, the college's first building in Trenton was "completely internally organized" — with features like smaller windows and a layout that reduced the need to go outside the structure.
But Trenton Hall is across the street from the main campus building, Hatch said, and MCCC hopes the expansion will spur new businesses on the block. "Instead of being so internal, it's really to get students out and participating in the city, and bring that life to the city streets."
At similar projects across the state, planners say another focus is building facilities that are useful to everyday city residents. King-Viehland, the NJIT development official, said Warren Street Village will be followed by three phases in which the school envisions retail, housing and other uses "specifically geared toward nonstudents."
The second phase will focus on 90,000 square feet of retail, with the goal of attracting a large-scale anchor tenant, like a grocery store, King-Viehland said.
"We see that our relationship is synergistic," she said. "As we grow and prosper, the city of Newark grows and prospers, and vice versa. So our futures are connected, and we want both futures to be bright."
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