Photo: UCF rendering
Downtown U: UCF as a deal maker
Under John Hitt, UCF has tried to brand itself as ‘America's leading partnership university.' It has become a big player in a plan to enhance Orlando's city center.
UCF President John Hitt and USF President Judy Genshaft have aggressively capitalized on their schools’ economic heft, turning their institutions into economic development engines in their respective communities. In return, they’ve been embraced by government and business leaders who understand how the schools help create strong, stable employment bases. The two universities are currently playing big roles in efforts to redevelop the city center areas of Orlando and Tampa.
In 2006, Orlando was completing a deal with the Orlando Magic to replace the arena where the NBA team played. As financing for the new Amway Center came together, a task force recommended developing the site of the old arena into a “Creative Village” that would house technology and digital-media companies.
The early plan for Creative Village included some involvement by UCF, which had opened a video game design school next to the old arena site. But those early plans only envisioned “a couple thousand” UCF students, recalls developer Craig Ustler.
The recession stalled development of Creative Village. And as the economy rebounded, UCF President John Hitt began to see more potential for UCF at Creative Village than the original task force had envisioned — particularly after a 2013 trip to Phoenix, where he met with Arizona State University President Michael Crow.
Crow had forged a deal with the city to establish an ASU presence in downtown Phoenix, and an urban core once littered with empty lots had become a bustling, 20-acre campus where more than 11,500 students attended classes [“The ASU Model,” page 101].
“What I saw at the ASU campus in downtown Phoenix was compelling,” Hitt said at a UCF-hosted event last year in downtown Orlando. “It got me thinking about the future of UCF and our strong ties with the city of Orlando.”
Hitt called Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, who had backed the Creative Village concept and “was immediately interested” in possibly ramping up UCF’s presence as part of the project.
In early 2014, Dyer joined Hitt on a return trip to Phoenix. Although Dyer had not been to downtown Phoenix, he knew of its history as a “pretty blighted, isolated area” and was impressed with how ASU had revitalized it. “We both came away convinced that it would be a game-changing opportunity for UCF to be part of Creative Village,” Dyer says.
Hitt and UCF got central Florida’s legislative delegation on board, and UCF received a $2-million state appropriation to study a downtown Orlando campus.
In September, Hitt stood before a large audience at Orlando’s Church Street Station and announced plans for a major expansion downtown — including a commitment from the city to donate about 15 acres of the 68-acre proposed Creative Village site to UCF.
“Through another bold collaboration,” Hitt said, “we explore a vision for UCF in Orlando that could energize downtown and redefine its future.”
In addition to about 600,000 square feet of higher education space, the Creative Village template now calls for apartments, offices, retail, public parks, a hotel, a pre- K-8 public school and links to buses and commuter rail service.
UCF, in partnership with Valencia College, wants UCF Downtown to include as many as 13,000 students. Hitt says UCF will carefully choose which academic programs move from the main campus 13 miles away. Those that can support downtown’s growing tech startup community and those with a record of placing students in good internships will take precedence.
Programs related to interactive entertainment, art and film, and communication — as well as a newly proposed initiative to allow students with intellectual disabilities to attend classes and achieve college credentials — are likely to find space at the downtown campus.
This past spring, UCF returned to the Legislature to ask for $57.5 million to begin construction on the first of several phases. The campus’s total estimated price is $210 million. (Two factors working in UCF’s favor: Senate President Andy Gardiner is from Orlando, and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli is a UCF alumnus.)
Ustler, master developer of the Creative Village development, says a significant UCF presence will help re-energize nearby Parramore, a predominantly African-American neighborhood that’s been economically depressed for decades, and bring a “college town vibe” to the urban core.
“A 13,000-student campus puts you in the top tier of the largest universities in the Southeast,” Ustler says, drawing a comparison to Atlanta. “It puts you in the Georgia Tech world.”
In Hitt’s 23 years as president, UCF’s student body has grown from about 22,000 to more than 60,800, the nation’s second-largest after ASU. Along the way, Hitt has embraced partnerships with the private sector, including a 2005 deal to put UCF’s newly authorized medical school at Lake Nona. As part of the deal, the Tavistock Group, Lake Nona’s developer, gave UCF 50 acres and $12.5 million.
UCF’s desire to move closer to industry reflects the fact that even in an age of online learning, “location-based education works,” says UCF Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Dale Whittaker. Given that UCF is “squeezed” on its main campus, he says, administrators have to consider where best to add capacity.
“We’re trying to think about how to develop students who not only can take jobs, but also immediately create jobs, even in small scales,” Whittaker says. “About 15% of the jobs downtown are scientific or technical.”
Mark Whiteley, a principal at CannonDesign, UCF’s master-planning consultant, says that in the face of limited resources, universities are taking stock of local needs and aligning themselves with employers.
“Learning situations are becoming very work-like,” Whiteley says. Jill Kurth, an associate vice president at CannonDesign, adds that an urban campus can be a “direct pipeline” to key partnerships in industry and government.
Dyer says UCF will entice more tech companies downtown and appeal to the millennial generation of young workers and entrepreneurs.
“These young, creative minds don’t want to be on a suburban campus out 20 miles in the hinterlands,” he says. “They want to be downtown where the activity is, where they can walk places and be without a car and live that urban lifestyle.
“Most major cities — take Boston, Chicago or Philadelphia — have college campuses in their downtowns,” Dyer says. “We’re in an age where companies follow talent, and if you’re creating your own talent, they’re going to locate here.”
The ASU Model
In 2003, Arizona State University President Michael Crow went to a popular breakfast restaurant in Phoenix to meet then-Mayor Phil Gordon to talk about the future of ASU and downtown Phoenix.
ASU’s main campus in Tempe was bursting at the seams. Downtown Phoenix was in need of a serious makeover. Putting pen to a napkin, as the story goes, the two men sketched out a plan for a new ASU campus downtown.
Three years later, Phoenix voters approved a $223-million bond to pay for a downtown campus. Less than six months later, ASU Downtown opened to an initial cohort of students in two rehabbed buildings. Meanwhile, ASU also began construction on new academic buildings and residence halls.
Today, ASU has more than 11,500 students and 1,300 faculty and staff in downtown Phoenix. The 20-acre campus is home to five colleges and 84 degree programs and soon will add the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. Total projected enrollment is 15,000.
One of the campus’s big success stories is the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, which opened downtown in 2008. It occupies a 223,000-sq.-ft. building designed for students to gain experience producing content for professional media outlets.
“We’re right in heart of the business district, where students can not only walk to internships, but also the coverage area,” says Christopher Callahan, the school’s dean and vice provost of the downtown campus. “For the most part, this is where the news is.”
The move also has been good for downtown Phoenix, Callahan says. Recruited away from the University of Maryland in 2005, he remembers what Phoenix’s downtown used to look like.
“It was pretty darn quiet at night after work. The streets seemed pretty empty,” he recalls. “In those 10 years, growth has been remarkable. It’s quite vibrant. On virtually any evening of the week, there’s something interesting going on downtown.”