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Knocking Down The Ivory Tower: Universities Are Centrepieces Of Some Of The Best New Developments

For a long time the term “ivory tower” was a building metaphor that summed up not just the way academics were in their own intellectual world, but the way universities interacted with the built environment around them — in a place but apart from it.

Not anymore. Academics and developers today are joined at the hip. Developers are making universities and educational facilities central to some of the most exciting new schemes in the world. And universities are borrowing from the playbook of the real estate industry to attract the best academics and students, push forward the goals of research and innovation, and keep themselves relevant and well-funded.

Imperial's new White City campus

In London, Imperial College is building one of the most interesting new districts anywhere in the UK capital, a 23-acre campus in White City comprising 1.75M SF including education facilities and student accommodation but also incubator space for private sector startups and coworking space for businesses that want to be near cutting-edge research in science and engineering. Innovation hubs including the one being built up around Imperial College will be discussed at Bisnow's Global Placemaking event 1 March.

University College London is already an occupier at Delancey’s Here East scheme in Stratford, and is also building a new facility nearby on the former Olympic Park. A letting to Central Saint Martins school of art put Kings Cross Central on the map, and allowed developer Argent to build a scheme that will soon be the UK home of Google and Facebook.

In Manchester, Manchester University is looking for investment and development partners to build a £1.5B, 26-acre innovation district on a city centre site it owns.

At a smaller level, Cornell University (based in rural New York state in the U.S.) has set up a research and innovation base in central Manhattan.

Increasingly, universities want the same thing from their physical space as large corporate occupiers, and they have realised that physical proximity to the world of business and commerce will be vital for their futures.

“There is a concept in the world of education, and science and technology in particular, called convergence,” Arup Associate Director Sowmya Parthasarathy said, referring to a concept pioneered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology near Boston in the U.S. “Researchers and academics are recognising that for their work and innovation to be translated to the wider world, they need to work together with business, and they are starting to break down the barriers. Business wants to be near academia and vice versa.

“A lot of universities have typically been in the back of beyond, but now they want to be in places that attract people and funding, where the most talented people want to live and work.”

Central Saint Martins at King's Cross Central

Universities like Imperial College are capitalising on big companies’ desire to be close to the brightest minds in academia.

“The big campuses where companies like ICI or BP were undertaking research are disappearing, but the requirement for the research to be undertaken is greater than ever, so we can provide the wherewithal for that,” Imperial Associate Provost for Academic Planning Neil Alford said. “There is a big push from government and universities to ensure that ideas and innovations and products from research are transferred into the corporate world.”

Imperial has incubator space with 30 to 40 companies, mostly venture capital funded, and a coworking scheme operated by Central Working which is full. It has monthly meetings with local developers to explore ways of working together.

Imperial is still in the process of building out the campus, but it is already having a positive knock-on effect on nearby private sector schemes, Alford said.

“What we’re doing is creating a research and innovation district, and companies want to be part of that,” he said.

Healthcare company Novartis in November announced it is moving its UK HQ to the area, occupying 54K SF in the nearby White City Place.

“They made it pretty clear that being near Imperial was a big part of what brought them to the area,” Alford said.

Imperial even managed to play the property game expertly in terms of its timing: It bought the site in 2008 and 2009, during the depths of the last crash. Alford said not having the commercial considerations of a developer worked in its favour.

“We are a very long-term institution. We are under no financial pressure; we can build when we need to,” he said. “If you look at what MIT have done in becoming a hub, it has taken them 40 years.”

When it comes to developers incorporating universities in their wider schemes, the recent trend can be traced back to King’s Cross Central, where Central Saint Martins was the first occupier to take space in the 8M SF scheme a decade ago. The Aga Khan has also set up a university there. But that first deal almost didn’t happen.

ID Manchester, the University of Manchester's new planned innovation district.

“I’d love to say it was, but when we started the process we didn’t deliberately set out to include a university as part of the scheme,” Argent Managing Partner David Partridge said. “What was deliberate is that we knew half of the space would be offices, a quarter would be residential, about 12.5% would be retail and restaurants, and that left about 10% in this ‘other’ category. This was in 2001, and we looked at lots of uses — education and culture but also the kind of big-box leisure schemes that were around at the time, so instead of Central Saint Martins you could have had a bowling alley or a cinema there.”

The goal was to get a big “people attractor,” Patridge said. Talks with the college resulted in it becoming the first tenant.

“It has been transformational for the scheme,” he said. “It brings an incredible youthful exuberance to the scheme. There was a fashion show last week, with thousands of young people there wearing things you can’t even imagine. It becomes an address and destination, and also informs other elements of the scheme, like Coal Drops Yards, which is very design-led.”

Partridge said the financial deal struck with the college even allowed it to participate in the future success of the scheme.

“It creates a halo effect that draws others in, and we wanted to work closely in partnership with them.”

This trend doesn’t just have to be about massive new developments, Parthasarathy said. Landlords were increasingly looking to partner with educational institutions and companies on incubators in sectors like fintech, where the landlord can provide space in an office building and help bring the worlds of academia and commerce together.

The ivory tower is being torn down and rebuilt. It has master planned, gotten an incubator and coworking, and now looks like cutting edge real estate.

Hear more from Parthasarathy and Alford at Bisnow's Global Placemaking event 1 March at Yoo Capital.