Last week we traveled north to visit friends living in New Haven, CT. New Haven is home to Yale University, where the town-gown relationship has not always been so cheery. New Haven’s economy declined over the latter half of the 20th century and the city became the university’s Achilles heel, hurting Yale’s ability to recruit students and faculty. The city is infamously known for its high rate of violent crime and the 1991 murder of a Yale student, which marked a low point of Yale-New Haven relations.
While New Haven still struggles with the reality and perception of a city with high rates of crime, it has also undergone a renaissance, and Yale deserves much of the credit. During our trip we walked through vibrant downtown streets buzzing with activity, visited a bustling Saturday farmers market, and roamed some of the city’s historic neighborhoods as well as Yale’s beautiful campus. The city felt alive and well, but it has not always been this way.
The Yale campus on a beautiful New England fall day
When Yale’s recently retired President, Richard Levin, began his tenure in 1993 he famously promised his first act would be to “shake the mayor’s hand.” He not only shook the mayor’s hand, he set in motion 2 initiatives involving real estate that helped change New Haven.
The New Haven skyline from East Rock Park
First, in 1994, Levin setup a home buyer program that offered a $35,000 subsidy to any university employee that chose to buy a home in the city of New Haven. Not a bad deal, right?! Since 1994 Yale has contributed over $25 million to more than 1,000 employees. Eighty percent of these buyers are first time buyers.
Second, in 1996, Yale set up the Office for New Haven and State Affairs, which managed the above mentioned home buyer program and Yale’s growing commercial real estate portfolio. Over several years Yale’s leadership turned their commercial property into a well run retail operation, attracting brands like J. Crew, Urban Outfitters, American Apparel, and even an Apple store. If you visit New Haven today you’ll see all of these stores and more on a stretch of Broadway, which borders Yale’s campus. The area has been transformed into a shopping destination that attracts students, urban dwellers and suburban residents. Between 1996 and 2002, city retail sales jumped from $577 million to more than $2 billion. Between 1998 and 2004, the number of vacant properties in New Haven dropped from 1,400 to 550.
Upscale retail shops, including an Apple Store, line Broadway near Yale’s campus
So, back to Birmingham. In terms of real estate, could UAB be doing more to help its home city?
UAB, much like Yale, is the region’s economic driving force. What if UAB took a leading role in establishing retail development that would benefit both the UAB community and Birmingham residents? A few years ago UAB painted its logo in the center of Five Points South, which borders campus. But the University could do more than make gestures in Five Points, it could help bolster the area’s reputation as an historic entertainment and shopping district. Former Birmingham architect and blogger, Jeremy Erdreich, wrote about this very subject on his blog, Bham Architect, not too long ago. (PS. Rest In Peace Bham Architect’s blog. I miss you lots.)
UAB’s logo in Five Points South (Photo credit: al.com)
Much like New Haven, many of Birmingham’s urban neighborhoods are on the rebound. The public and the private sector have made investments to improve its neighborhoods, but much remains to be done. What if UAB played a role in fueling the city’s housing market by helping to stabilize and increase home values in areas like Norwood, Avondale, Woodlawn and others with incentives for their employees to live there?
Would this Avondale bungalow be more valuable if UAB incentivized its employees to purchase homes in the city?
What if? Just sayin’.
(The Atlantic Cities published an article with more details about Yale’s role in the city’s transformation here and you can find an in depth article in the Yale Herald about the university’s role in commercial real estate here.)