Baltimore colleges push to improve neighborhoods
Change has swept through the University of Baltimore — and the surrounding neighborhood — over the past decade. Striking new academic buildings, an apartment building and the university's first dormitory have appeared among the brownstones of the Midtown neighborhood. New shops and restaurants brighten once-dingy blocks. Streets that were deserted after dark now buzz with students.

"It seems more like a university environment now," said Earl Spain, 59, who completed his bachelor's degree at UB in 2002 and is working on a master's in criminal justice. "There's a lot more going on around here. You can get a coffee here, go to the Barnes & Noble."

Across the city, colleges and universities are working to revitalize neighborhoods surrounding their campuses — pushing development in flagging areas, guiding community projects and organizing programs to improve education, health care and even housing for nearby residents. Last month, the Johns Hopkins University announced an ambitious plan to bolster neighborhoods near the Homewood campus — including a $10 million gift.

In Baltimore, where most manufacturing plants shut down decades ago and the last Fortune 500 headquarters decamped in 2011, universities represent one of the city's best hopes for revitalization and growth, officials at cash-strapped City Hall acknowledge.

The motivations are both altruistic and practical, and sometimes questioned by residents who say they don't reap enough of the economic benefits. But unlike big redevelopment projects that gentrify an area, pushing poorer residents and lower-end stores to other parts of the city, these so-called anchor institutions — a phrase coined by a Harvard Business School professor a decade ago — aim to rebuild while also helping downtrodden neighbors.

"Institutions have come to the realization that their success, and their viability as a business, is inextricably tied to the success or failure of the communities in which they're based," said Ted Howard, a University of Maryland researcher who studies anchor institutions.

"Anchor institutions are, to a city like Baltimore in 2012 or 2013, what manufacturers were 100 years ago. They're the biggest employers, biggest purchasers," said Howard, director of the university's Democracy Collaborative.

The Maryland Institute College of Art was among the first Baltimore institutions to draw up a comprehensive anchor strategy. More than a decade ago, university trustees drafting a strategic plan came to the realization that the city's persistent problems — crime, vacant houses, drug abuse — could deter students from choosing MICA.

"What happens in our city, especially in our neighborhoods, is really crucial to our ability to attract and retain students," said MICA President Fred Lazarus IV. "If we don't step forward and things really deteriorate, it's going to be a problem. We can't be passive observers."

Since then, MICA has led the transformation of a once-derelict stretch of North Avenue and students have helped city residents paint murals and cultivate community farms. The college awarded grants to 32 community projects last year, oversees an Americorps volunteer program and is working to create a map of social-justice projects across the city.

Hundreds of students and alumni volunteers have taught art classes at nearby schools, homeless shelters and senior centers.

Michelle Luong, 21, who graduated in May, led students in an after-school program at John Eager Howard Elementary on a recent afternoon.

Parents said the program helps their children see beyond the confines of their Reservoir Hill neighborhood.

"They're teaching kids more about the outside world," said Kelly Stuart, whose 10-year-old grandson, Antwain Stuart, was sprawled out coloring a circular emblem. "He's opened up a lot since he started the classes."

The scope of similar programs at other colleges and universities varies widely and depends on the size and wealth of the schools and the needs in their surrounding communities.

Initiatives include Loyola University Maryland's efforts to deploy students and faculty to enhance the York Road corridor and Hopkins' major redevelopment project in East Baltimore. Some schools, such as the University of Baltimore, have focused on strategic development to enhance neighborhoods, while others, like Coppin State, are rebuilding homes near the campus.

Not all such efforts have been well-received.

Hopkins' $1.8 billion East Baltimore Development Initiative to redevelop blighted blocks around the hospital campus displaced hundreds of residents and has drawn criticism from East Baltimore politicians who say the project has not generated enough local jobs. The Hopkins Institutions are building a biopark and have partnered with Morgan State University to run the East Baltimore Community School.

And at least one local politician has rebuked Coppin's president — who is stepping down this year — for being too focused on the neighborhoods around the campus.