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Wayne State University Big Part of Change in Midtown Detroit


When people around here talk about “Midtown,” the discussion generally is about new condos, lofts, small business, lifestyle.

Not so long ago, the Detroit neighborhood separating Wayne State University’s campus from downtown mostly was a wasteland of ramshackle buildings and rat-infested alleys, notorious for its drug houses and rampant prostitution.

“We use the euphemism today and call it Midtown, but it was the Cass Corridor and everyone knew what the Cass Corridor was,” outgoing Wayne State President Irvin Reid said.

When Reid arrived in 1997, he set about transforming the look, perception and reputation of the faded community surrounding the 200-acre urban campus.

Iron chains, presenting more a symbolic than physical barrier to the campus, were swiftly removed and sold as scrap. And as developers added upscale condos and townhouses costing up to $600,000 per unit, the university also went to work.

Wayne State spent more than $1 billion over the past 10 years for on- and off-campus housing and building projects.

“More people are realizing the action is in Midtown Detroit,” Reid said. “As we fulfill our strategic mission to revitalize Detroit, we have become part of the growing rhythm of this diverse neighborhood.”

Anchored by the university and a cultural district that includes the Detroit Institute of Arts, Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, and Orchestra Hall home of the Detroit Symphony Midtown has become an attraction.

More than 20 housing developments, many priced in the $150,000-$300,000 range, have been built. A $36 million apartment development is going up on university-owned land.

Many urban schools are doing more outside the classroom to revitalize their neighborhoods and improve students’ experiences on and off campus.

“Universities can’t just pick up and move like corporations,” said Roland Anglin, the executive director for the Initiative for Regional and Community Transformation at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “They really do have a stock investment in buildings and history in those communities.”

An early effort was in 1950s Chicago. Federal funds, private investment and $29 million from the University of Chicago were used to demolish old buildings and clear tracts of land to transform Hyde Park into a vibrant college community.

The University of Cincinnati currently is a partner in various redevelopment programs expected to lead to $500 million in new construction near the campus.

In Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University have started mortgage programs for faculty and staff looking to move into surrounding neighborhoods.

“It means vacant houses are now renovated and lived in,” Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority spokeswoman Emilymarie Romin said.

Rutgers donated parking lots valued at $275,000 to the city of Camden in 2003 to help create market-rate row houses in one neighborhood. Each of the 18 townhouses being built on the site has been sold, according to school spokesman Mike Sepanic.

Rutgers also is seeking proposals from developers to convert a former law school building on its Newark campus into student housing or a hotel. It’s part of the university’s plan to create an “academic village,” a phrase more schools are using to describe their relationships with the community.

Schools have to be proactive in removing blight and making sure the area around campus is attractive and safe, Reid says.

“If there was blight, we acquired it because no one else would,” Reid said. “We then tried developing around it, first maybe with a parking lot, and then a (new) building.

“You have to have the foresight to know there is an opportunity for acquiring the land. You can’t just grab land … for no purpose at all.”

General Motors Corp. donated a 500,000-square-foot building just north of the campus for a technology center.

Wayne State secured a $2 million grant to get construction going in 2003 on the incubator for startup businesses. The school also provided more than $10 million in loan guarantees for businesses leasing space in the TechTown research and technology park.

Local business leaders and Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick have applauded the venture.

Wayne State also found a developer for an empty ginger ale factory and three acres of land owned by the school. South University Village apartments should be completed next year.

It will be another piece in Midtown’s turnaround, said Sabra Sanzotta, the owner of The Loft Warehouse, a brokerage firm representing buyers seeking to live in Midtown.

“That development is going to build a critical mass that will give us some momentum as far as drawing more people to the area,” Sanzotta said.

Wayne State is promoting new housing in the area to more than 8,200 faculty and staff, and close to 31,000 students. In return, the companies are offering incentives ranging from a year of mortgage payments to thousands of dollars in upgrades to free parking spaces.

Add small, affordable eateries, a Starbucks coffee, Barnes & Noble bookstore and a hair salon, and the campus becomes more of a destination for people living in and visiting Midtown.

“It’s critically important to have new retail and new restaurants,” University Cultural Center Association president Susan Mosey says. “It’s another reason for students to want to live in the dorm or in apartments.”

The same is proving true near the University of Cincinnati.

University Park and Stratford Village are helping transform neighborhoods that Tony Brown, chief executive of a nonprofit consortium working with the school on the projects, calls “slum-like.”

“The university discovered that if students were coming to look at the campus, the parents were saying ‘where is my child going to live?’” Brown said.

For an urban university to be a part of the community, it has to reach out and not become an island, said Reid, who is stepping down as Wayne State president next spring.

“This does not happen in one day, one year or, for that matter, in 10 years,” he said. “It takes time.”

The Associated Press

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