Two years ago, one of the three community associations in Baltimore’s Northeastern district rejected plans generated by Morgan State University to build new student housing in a shopping center next to the campus. The motivation – more students living outside of the campus confines would create more headaches in parking and public safety issues for neighbors.
A few months later, after some legislative stonewalling and brokering between the community, the university, and its development partner, the Hillen Road Improvement Association relented and greenlit the rebirth of the Northwood Shopping Center, an iconic commercial area in Baltimore’s civil rights history as a frequent target of Morgan student protests. The area will now be razed and redesigned with new grocery and retail options in the hopes of revitalizing one of the cities most underdeveloped residential areas which in recent years has been plagued by crime and community discontent.
But two questions emerge from this deal that has been years in the making for a flagship HBCU which has long-suffered in its attempts to serve as an economic engine in the area. In a college town where institutions are buying and owning real estate to shape the identity of the city, is Morgan being boxed out as a landowner and developer and what cost will it create for students?
Most cities across the United States embrace colleges and universities as engines for job creation, social mobility, and research. Historically black colleges and universities, however, have long lived outside of the common sense politics of economic development.
Many of our campuses are surrounded by languishing communities devoid of large employers in manufacturing, retail or agricultural sectors. Even as states have moved to attract big businesses to dying regions with the promise of tax breaks and investment, HBCU communities have not been targets for this kind of development.
So the recent announcement from Morgan State University President David Wilson about joint plans to develop retail and commercial space in a historically important section of Northeast Baltimore City shouldn’t surprise residents or lawmakers.
The first phase is slated to incorporate 70,000 square feet of retail space, including a Barnes & Noble College bookstore with a Starbucks, and 20,000 square feet of office space to house Morgan State University’s public safety department.
The project’s second phase will entail constructing an additional 30,000 to 35,000 square feet of retail space, most of which will be occupied by a grocery store, Renbaum said. His group is in talks with several potential grocers.
A tweet from Morgan State President David Wilson:
Morgan State has reached an agreement with a local developer to raze all of the existing structures in the Northwood Shopping Center and to redevelop it with contemporary shops and stores. Press release with more details coming soon! This is huge for us! pic.twitter.com/Mhc9rDZevv
— David Wilson (@morganpres) August 29, 2018
The same deal that Dr. Wilson is touting as a success seems to be countered by growth at the university. Another tweet from Dr. Wilson two days later:
Morgan has experienced a twenty percent increase in new freshmen enrollment over the last two years. Almost 1400 freshmen this year—second largest in our history. This has placed a lot of stress on campus housing but we are making plans to build new residential halls. Stay tuned
— David Wilson (@morganpres) August 31, 2018
The new deal does not provide any mention of student housing. Morgan’s campus student housing situation can be mentioned as misappropriated at best. The university’s on-campus housing offers two all-female several all-male housing options; despite the university’s population being majority female.
Two years ago, neighbors appeared to be moving towards agreeing to limited student housing in the new Northwood complex, which would have helped Morgan increase student housing capacity and equity. Currently, Morgan has a leasing relationship with Morgan View Apartments to provide proximate student housing, but increasing violence against students at the complex underscores the need for housing with more university oversight agreements.
Morgan View has been identified for expansion in the most recent version of MSU’s master plan, which projects enrollment to reach nearly 10,000 students by 2025.
Morgan is in a prime position to grow the student population in the next decade with increasing infrastructure of new bridges, academic and administrative buildings; but leadership has failed to increase student housing capacity over the last decade. The exclusion of student housing in this development deal puts the university back to square one. While options remain within the university’s facilities redevelopment plan for its student services complex and renovations to other leasing agreements, none of them are well-suited for short-term housing solutions or growing issues with student safety.
These plans also stand to earn opposition from associations like the Hillen Road Improvement Association, which currently shows its weight and influence in the community with a sign that sits on the corner of Hillen Road and East Cold Spring Lane, geographically stationed at the school’s official mailing address of 1700 East Cold Spring Lane.
It is important for Morgan State’s leadership to seize more equity in the city’s inevitable civic revitalization. If there is to be an anti-gentrification effort in Baltimore, it will be led by Morgan creating livable communities benefiting all kinds of neighbors from varying racial and economic groups.
For now, Morgan State does not appear to have any financial ownership stake in development which will be driven by the university’s student and faculty buying power. And there are few indications that a community which has historically rebuffed Morgan as an anchor institution will respect or embrace efforts to deepen its brand in their neighborhoods.
Morgan has had little say in the commercial and residential growth of the district for generations because of discriminatory policies from state officials and neglect from city officials. Community members do not look to the university as a resource for policing, beautification, or cultural infusion. Dr. Wilson’s willing advocacy for the state’s efforts to marginalize the university have helped in securing new facilities, but with the same old approaches of everyone and everything around Morgan growing richer.
Towson University, less than six miles away from Morgan in Baltimore County, has boomed in the last decade while the area around Morgan has languished. TU’s role as a catalyst for metropolitan expansion was profiled in a 2014 feature in Baltimore Magazine.
There’s also the planned $60-million 101 York student-housing-and-retail project closer to Towson University, plus an array of new residential projects—the Towson Green townhomes, The Winthrop luxury apartments, The Quarters at Towson Town Center apartments, and The Palisades, an amenities-loaded downtown high-rise, which opened in 2011. Altogether, the total is more than $770 million in recent private investments in the once sleepy county seat. And, there’s still more: another $11.5 million in public investments and, indirectly related, a planned $1.1 billion in capital projects from Towson University as the school’s population swells over the next decade.
Now, all of the amenities that Morgan students, faculty and executives could want are just an Uber ride away. And in the effort to reclaim some of that economic market share, Morgan is giving away its buying power to a developer which we can only hope will become a million-dollar donor to the university for all of the money lost in the university’s inactivity.
Morgan is seemingly giving away valuable living space for students and millions in potential endowment funding, scholarship resources, and community branding, while neighboring institutions are taking the more strategic approach of real estate acquisition and development in the name of institutional self-interest.
And as usual, none of the school stakeholders seem to be the wiser.