Education

Town-gown relations the topic of Wednesday lecture at UK

Large urban universities often underestimate the effects their decisions have on neighborhoods around their campuses and their cities, says Omar Blaik.

"We've been to 30 to 40 campuses, and it is just remarkable how similar the approach is and how devastating the impact is on neighborhoods," said Blaik, president of U3Ventures, a real estate development and consulting firm that specializes in helping universities integrate with their surroundings to create vibrant areas.

Blaik will be in Lexington on Wednesday as guest lecturer at the 2011 Lafayette Seminar on Public Issues presented by the Gaines Center for the Humanities at the University of Kentucky.

His talk will focus on how great universities can shape great cities.

Blaik's interest in helping universities connect with their neighbors grew out of his job at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was hired in 1997 as senior vice president with responsibility for planning, design, construction, real estate development and facilities.

In the last quarter-century, urban colleges in many instances found themselves enveloped by the poverty, crime and physical decline that beset many American cities. The tack of many schools was to turn inward and plan their campuses from the inside out, Blaik said in a telephone interview from his home in West Philadelphia.

But a university's core mission cannot be limited to education and research, he said.

"Universities are big enterprises," Blaik said.

They employ a lot of people, procure a lot of goods and control tremendous real estate activity, he said.

"When you think of all the layers of their enterprise, there is an opportunity to engage their surroundings in a positive way," he said. "And when they do that, the built environment around them, the quality of life, the economic impact can be tremendous."

Blaik's role in cultivating a successful town-gown partnership at Penn that brought about a renaissance of West Philadelphia is covered in Judith Rodin's book The University & Urban Revival.

Several people concerned about UK and Lexington's town-gown relationship read Rodin's book, which led to Blaik's appearance Wednesday.

This will be the third Lafayette Seminar to focus on aspects of the connection between UK and Lexington.

In addition to Blaik, a panel discussion on University-Community Engagement Models is scheduled Feb. 23.

Blaik visited Lexington in September and met with neighborhood residents and university and city officials, including then-Vice Mayor Jim Gray.

"I believe Omar is familiar enough with Lexington and challenges we face, he will be helpful to us," said Lisa Broome-Price, the Gaines Center's acting director.

Bob Kelly, vice president of the University and Neighborhood Advisory Council, said he is hopeful Blaik could be hired as a consultant to help facilitate thoughtful development around the university.

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