PSU gets a new president who’s an expert in urban development, right as its community is making big plans.
BY ROBIN DOUSSARD
Strolling through the leafy South Park Blocks in Portland on an early-October Saturday means mingling with thousands of people — young, old, families — as they mill about the farmer’s market, buying breakfast or produce, ducking into the perimeter buildings to use the ATM. The coffee shops that dot the blocks are busy and the eateries are packed. It’s a vibrant, welcoming neighborhood nestled against the busy downtown core.
If you aren’t a student or maybe new to town, you could well miss that you are on a 49-acre campus that serves 27,000 students. Urban Portland State University is no ivory tower, either by history, design or intent.
Once seen as playing third fiddle to the University of Oregon and Oregon State, a blue-collar school in a blue-collar town, PSU now sits as the state’s largest university in its largest city, one of the country’s hottest destinations for the coveted young and creative class. How this city and its university grow together is a matter of great importance and opportunity to the larger community, even if you have no stake in the academics.
PSU is one of the biggest employers in the state with about 3,400 employees, a payroll of $184 million and a multiplied economic impact of $1 billion on the region. By 2017, PSU estimates it will grow to 35,000 students, and faculty and staff will reach 4,800. The campus also occupies a prime piece of real estate in the heart of a city that itself is undergoing serious transformation.
There’s a grand convergence right now: Portland is beginning its Portland Plan, which will update the 1980 comprehensive plan and the 1988 central city plan. The Portland Plan has an ambitious vision: a citywide effort to “guide the physical, economic, social, cultural and environmental development of Portland over the next 30 years.” At the same time, PSU is updating its University District Plan, which is part of the central city plan. Metro is updating its 2040 Growth Concept plan, while the Legislature’s Big Look Task Force is conducting a three-year review of the state’s land-use system and will make its recommendations in 2009.
Into this urban-planning sweet spot comes a new PSU president who literally wrote the book on the important role urban universities play in the economic and physical development of their communities. In September, Wim Wiewel arrived on campus with a suitcase full of experience in the university/community dance: He was vice president for academic affairs and professor of public affairs at the University of Baltimore prior to coming to Portland; and before that he was at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he created the university’s Great Cities program, its “signature metropolitan commitment.” It included a new College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, the Great Cities Institute, and a comprehensive neighborhood revitalization program for UIC neighborhoods.
“It’s great timing,” says Gil Kelley, director of Portland’s Planning Bureau. “We’re gearing up, they’re gearing up. That coincidence doesn’t happen very often in the life of a city. He’s a perfect fit for PSU and with the city of Portland.”
The 57-year-old Wiewel co-authored The University as Urban Developer (2005); in it he examines many schools and their communities and how university real estate development is one of the biggest “town-and-gown” issues.
He sees two unique things about Portland and PSU. The first is the relative importance of PSU in a city of Portland’s size. “Most cities this size have more universities,” he says. “That was hugely attractive to me. I wouldn’t have to fight for attention.”
The other is that he walks into a dynamic where there is already a high level of cooperation between the university and its community. “The collaborative culture here is really amazing.” Which, he says, reminds him very much of his Dutch background.
He makes it clear that he sees himself as a new conductor hopping on a moving train, not the one who started the engine fires.
“This isn’t Day One,” Wiewel says. “I see [my tenure] as a continuum, not a turning point.” What he also sees is a future where PSU is one of the greatest urban research universities, “meaning that we have been uniquely able to solve the problems of the region while maintaining the quality of life, and that the university is completely intertwined with the region. We need to be physically, academically, civically and environmentally enmeshed in the life of the region.
“There are no universities that do that now.”
He makes it clear he will be PSU’s head cheerleader.
“The perception of this university is stuck in the past,’’ he says. Second-rate, blue collar, gritty. Those descriptions are as outdated for PSU as they are for the city it serves. For example, U.S. News & World Report ranked PSU No. 7 this year on its list of “up-and-coming” national universities.
To emphasize PSU’s role in its city, one of Wiewel’s top five priorities is to strengthen PSU’s role as a community partner and anchor institution in the Metro area. (The others are civic leadership, improving student success, global excellence and more higher-ed opportunities for K-12 students.)
Quite right, since they are the principal developer in that part of town.
“PSU and the city have always been joined at the hip,” says Lindsay Desrochers, PSU’s vice president for finance and administration. A tighter collaboration was created two years ago when PSU agreed to plan alongside the central city planning process. Desrochers says in the review of the University District plan they are looking 20 to 30 years out. “We need about 2.5-3 million more square feet of housing and academic space. And some parking,” she says. PSU also is asking the state for $50-$70 million for student housing and $90 million for the business administration school.
PSU’s campus is not an enclosed campus and so “every block we bought has different restrictions,” says Desrochers. “It’s both a blessing and partial curse that we are a campus sitting in the central city. We are a mixed-use district; some of the properties are almost blighted.” Since 2000, PSU has acquired more than 1 million square feet of new space and 12 buildings have been constructed or remodeled since then. The university estimates that it will need at least eight additional buildable blocks in the next 12 years.
PSU also plans to connect to South Waterfront in the next few years if the 2009 Legislature approves the $250 million funding request by the Oregon State Board of Higher Education for a life sciences facility, which would support PSU, Oregon Health & Science University, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) and the Portland Community College system. An early idea in the Portland Plan includes maximizing linkages among the “loop” created by the institutions of higher education and OMSI that ring the Willamette River.
“One of the things is that we need a world-class university presence,” says Kelley. “We will probably get that through a working coalition of universities and colleges in Portland. Some would look at that as a disadvantage. But it is a unique advantage with a lot of institutions collaborating.”
The reality of funding, or lack of, is a chronic issue for PSU (and all the state’s universities), and is further magnified by the current credit crunch, the state’s perpetually low coffers and the general economic gloom. State funding for years has been falling throughout the university system. And while PSU received $10 million last year from the Legislature for building upgrades and hopes to get that much every biennium, according to Desrochers, that’s a tiny amount compared to the $200 million in deferred maintenance for PSU’s buildings.
And historically, UO and OSU have been able to raise more private money than PSU.
“Over the past 10 years, PSU has come out of the shadow of UO and OSU. It’s a more self-confident place today,” says Duncan Wyse, president of the Oregon Business Council. “PSU has figured out what it wants to be. While it may not have all the research assets, it has taken its assets and targeted them and created a vision for itself. They’ve been savvy with public-
private partnerships, but there’s not a great tradition of going after private money.”
But in September, just weeks into Wiewel’s tenure, PSU was awarded a $25 million challenge grant for sustainability programs by the Miller Foundation. The grant was the the largest in the university’s history and the largest ever awarded by the foundation. A new president couldn’t have asked for a better housewarming gift, and perhaps more importantly, it was a high-profile stake in the heart of PSU’s downtrodden story. Wiewel calls the grant “a point of harmony.” Foundation spokesman Charles Rooks emphasized that the grant was not “trying to create some newfangled idea. It is trying to help strengthen and expand some already excellent activities.” The foundation sees the grant as much about economic and community development as for education.
South Waterfront and downtown developer Homer Williams knows better than most the value of PSU’s real estate and appreciates how the university has integrated itself with the city. As a man who’s seen more financial ups and downs than a carousel operator, he’s sanguine about the economy being in flames.
“The whole dynamic of urban universities in the West has changed. People are returning to the cities and those schools are flourishing because the cities have become interesting. This is going to be a pretty exciting time after we get this financial turmoil behind us.”
Financial cycles and other businesses will come and go, but Wiewel says it will have little effect on PSU’s commitment to its city.
“So many others have left town, which makes us even more important,” says Wiewel. “But the university will be here. Face-to-face learning won’t go away.”
Not Day One, certainly, for this president, this university or this place.
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