While looking into this over the summer, I was intrigued to hear of a concept called an "innovation campus," discussed at the open houses on the three Brownfield Opportunity Area (BOA) studies in the works by the Mayor's Office of Strategic Planning and BUDC. (Humorously, Channel 4 News misquoted Planning Director Brendan Mehaffy on this idea as an "invasion campus" -- which I like to imagine caused our Canadian neighbors to make some diplomatic inquiries.) Could an "innovation campus" model be applied to an expansion of the Innovation Center?
A Google search on "innovation campus" yields references to at least a dozen of them under development in the US -- and even one in Australia. They seem more common in Midwestern states, where land-grant universities have long traditions of academic partnerships and programs for public benefit. While they have various descriptions and areas of focus, a few seem to be essentially job training centers. And a few seem to be essentially re-branded business incubators or business parks located on or near university campuses. Aside from the name, what most have in common is the theme, somewhere in their literature, of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. And most, explicitly or implicitly, embrace the clustering concept of economic development (building a critical mass in strategic industry sectors) being widely promoted by the Brookings Institution -- which is guiding New York's regional economic development process and western New York's regional council in particular.
In terms of facilities, while some of these innovation "campuses" are housed in a single building, at least in an initial phase, most live up to the "campus" name in that they involve multiple buildings. And more often than not, re-purposed existing buildings -- in some cases large, former industrial facilities. Aside from the name, what they all have in common is that they create physical places for people from business and academic worlds to mix -- the idea being that proximity will encourage creative serendipity. Knowing that is an essential ingredient in both innovation end entrepreneurship. Which in turn are both essential ingredients in today's innovation economy.
Of all the innovation campuses, the one that really caught my eye, because of its parallels to Buffalo, is the one being developed in earnest by the State of Nebraska at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, re-purposing the former state fairgrounds. In fact, some of the parallels are striking. For example, the "Environmental Strategic Objectives" for the Nebraska Innovation Campus (NIC) are:
• To design and construct a mix of buildings to accommodate talented tenants seeking an energetic operating environment that stimulates ideas and innovation, and
• To develop an "ecosystem" where talented people want to live, work, and be inspired.
That sounds like a great approach -- and just the kind of innovation environment or environments we want to create in Buffalo. So how do they intend to make that happen? The key is in their master plan (shown below).
As you can see, NIC is intended to be a dense, walkable campus with relatively little of its parking provided in surface lots. In fact, it appears that some of the construction will be on former surface parking lots from the state fair -- and it appears that another extensive surface-parking "lake" (a familiar concept to New York State fairgrounds visitors) will be converted into an actual lake. Which would be in keeping with the one of the three cluster-based themes of NIC: water, food, and fuel. Implementation is being overseen by a separate, quasi-public development corporation, NICDC.
Note its extensively urbanist characteristics, some of which preserve and build on the layout of the fairgrounds: density, walkability, relatively little surface parking, buildings built to the curb, structured parking (to a large degree) kept out of view, visual axes, terminal vistas, wayfinding features, informal and formal gathering spaces -- all centered on intersecting principal boulevards with an identifiable "four corners" where they intersect.
Based on the NICDC strategic plan, the physical characteristics of the Nebraska Innovation Campus will include the following:
• Two million square feet of space with 500,000 square feet completed within 5 years;
• Uniquely designed buildings of quality construction that promote positive energy, foster interaction, and stimulate ideas, collaboration, sustainability and innovation;
• Up to 7,000 people on the campus working in a collaborative environment where talented people come together intellectually to transform ideas into innovation; and
• Amenities for the benefit of those working on campus.
The Opportunity, Overview, and Vision page is the core of their excellent website and the key to understanding the rest of their very ambitious plans. The NIC vision statement is especially remarkable in its recognition and equal weighting of the importance of both people and environment to their success:
A dynamic environment where university and private sector talent transform ideas into innovation that impacts the world:
• Nebraska Innovation Campus is a conduit that connects the talent and abilities of individuals, companies and the University; and
• Nebraska Innovation Campus tenants will find themselves in unique buildings surrounded by a collaborative, innovative environment.
Embedded in their vision is an interesting caveat to the "Environmental Strategic Objectives" (listed above): "...to create a level of demand for NIC that compels the private sector to assume the majority of the financial cost of the physical assets." Meaning that beyond developing their initial core facilities, NICDC wants to allow for organic, mostly private-sector funded expansion and buildout guided by the overall master plan for the campus.
This sounds like an approach that would work in Buffalo, as well. A similar linked "core" of related facilities at the southwest corner of the medical campus, including a reused Trico Building and any necessary new-build space on an adjoining block. And from that, given that substantial portions of adjacent blocks are currently devoted to surface parking and underutilized buildings, growth could occur organically. Much of it could be privately funded, perhaps in partnership with a development corporation providing subsidized financing and related services in order to assure that growth occurs in accordance with a master plan or framework for growth for those blocks as envisioned by the community.
The NIC core is expected to be completed in 5 years, will reach 500,000 square feet, and will include adaptive reuse of two historic buildings and two new builds. The 4 building will be linked together. One of the buildings will provide common amenities that will serve all occupants of the Innovation Campus (akin to the reuse options proposed for the Trico Building).
This makes the NIC core an evenly balanced mix between reused buildings linked to new, perhaps serving as a model for expansion of Buffalo's Innovation Center. A similar configuration could occur if the remainder of the Trico building is reused: an expanded Innovation Center and related space in a reused Trico building plus new construction (the plan for which would have to include replacing present surface parking) across Ellicott Street, all of which could be linked to the Trico Building as well as the UB Gateway on the opposite side of Goodell. UB Gateway, in turn, is already being connected to the nearly completed building housing the expanded Educational Opportunity Center.
The UB Gateway, it should also be noted, recently became the new home of the UB School of Management's Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership -- adding yet an another element to the innovation and entrepreneurship vibe around the southwest corner of the medical campus. So while Nebraska is going to great lengths in their bold plan to both create the elements and link them up into a sense of happening place, Buffalo already has a lot of the pieces in place.
But Nebraska's balanced mix did not come without some initial controversy over a large, historic building in the core area. Sound familiar? The NIC initially planned to demolish the historic Industrial Arts Building (IAB), claiming that it couldn't be reused, and couldn't meet their needs. Sound familiar? The major reasons given were its deteriorated condition and interior configuration. Sound familiar? But after pushback from and dialog with the preservation community (sound familiar?), plans were developed to incorporate the building but extensively reconfigure its interior to make it useful for entirely new purposes. Sound familiar? One can hope.
Now that they've advanced past that sticking point, everyone is hailing the resulting plan:
"This is an excellent plan that maximizes the vast openness of the interior of the IAB while maintaining the integrity of the historic building structure -- giving the building a new, 21st-century use and respecting its connection with Nebraska history and the importance of agriculture to the state," said Dan Duncan, executive director for Nebraska Innovation Campus. "This is most definitely a win-win."
Duncan said the renovated and re-purposed IAB will be a research anchor and symbolic gateway building for the campus. It will be directly linked to a major life sciences research facility that will house laboratory space for university and private industry researchers and startup companies. The life sciences building links to the former 4-H building -- the east half of which is being renovated into a conference center -- which in turn links to a 90,000-square-foot companion building. The result is an initial complex of connected buildings creating the core of Phase 1 of Innovation Campus. Work is ready to begin on the former 4-H building project, to be complete by April 2013.
"This entire complex of more than 300,000 square feet [the NIC core] will provide space for multiple types of research and office needs," Duncan said. "Work with Nebraska Nova and multiple architects on this project has been very satisfying. We are excited to merge the past with the future in the complex of buildings."
Of the two planned new buildings for the core of the Innovation Campus, the most notable is the NIC Companion Building. Its cutting-edge architecture is eye-catching on its own, but especially striking in sharing some design characteristics with the nearly completed SUNY Educational Opportunity Center.
Take another look (above) at the four buildings of the Nebraska Innovation Campus core, and note that they will have two large, reused historic buildings, interconnected with two modern new-builds. In Buffalo, a similar collection of related facilities could be created by building a new building across Ellicott Street from the Trico Building, and linking it to the Trico Building to the west and the UB Gateway to the south. This could then become, analogously, the core of an innovation campus at the southwest corner of BNMC.
In terms of potential economic impact, what are they looking at? University consultants hired in 2009 estimated the economic impact of Nebraska Innovation Campus could bring annual new payroll to the local and state economy of $267 million, including $149 million in direct annual payroll and $118 million in indirect payroll from new spin-off jobs. Planners are using a 25-year phased development approach. That's huge, and embracing that potential Nebraska's Governor Heineman has become personally involved in promoting the state's Innovation Campus, especially given that the Nebraska state legislature has identified its top priorities as jobs and education, and the Innovation Campus is a key initiative for both.
Last year, Heineman said:
This is one of the most ambitious and most significant projects on the horizon for Nebraska. We want to grow and attract new, technology-focused companies to our state. Innovation Campus represents an important opportunity for the University of Nebraska to leverage its research talent to fuel new economic growth. Accelerating the development of Innovation Campus is a critical part of our vision for Nebraska's future.
Having taken in and digested all this, what is most striking to me about Nebraska's Innovation Campus aspiration and plan is that what is the innovation-economy initiative for an entire state, is not unlike our opportunity right here in downtown Buffalo if we simply play our cards right. If fully built out, NIC will be 2 Million square feet and employ 7,000. Between the Trico building, the existing Innovation Center space, UB Gateway, reuse of underutilized buildings on immediately adjacent blocks and new construction on existing surface parking lots that make up a substantial portion of current land use, well over a Million square feet could be devoted to a Buffalo equivalent of NIC.
Before wrapping up, I'm going to loop back to a key item in their master plan (the central section of which is pictured above): the density, the urbanism, and the structured parking. While I don't know much about Lincoln, Nebraska, I've driven across the state and it left the impression of being endless and flat. And the NIC is located at a former state fairgrounds. Given all that, it wouldn't be surprising to find these buildings surrounded by a sea of endless acres of surface parking. Yet quite the opposite is the case. Except for what appears to be some short-term surface parking, most of the parking seems to be planned for several parking structures. And not only that, much of the structured parking is shielded from view (especially in areas near where the axial boulevards intersect), for example by being surrounded on three sides by built-to-the-curb buildings. In fact, the overall plan corresponds to up-to-date ideas about density and walkability, with a layout that will encourage people to congregate in common areas and cross paths frequently.
This is exactly the kind of environment that could exist on and around the southwest corner of BNMC. In need of enhancement and strengthening by sympathetic new-builds and infill, and quality public-realm improvements (some of which are already in the making), yes -- but largely there. Again, an innovation district hubbed around Trico utilizing a mix of new-build, infill, and adaptive reuse gives us the opportunity to expand the Innovation Center as far as our imagination and gumption could take it -- even growing it organically into an Innovation Campus that would rival what Nebraska is trying to create more from scratch and even exceed it by virtue of adding to the creative, serendipity vibe interfacing with nearby vital neighborhoods and districts.
So the issue raised in the Business First article of potential to expand the Innovation Center seems obvious to answer in the affirmative -- as long as we give up the idea that everything and everyone must be located within the same four walls. I'm well prepared to give up that constraint, especially when leaving it behind opens the possibility of creating a center for innovation of such flexibility and potential for growth as to match and potentially surpass a statewide critical initiative in another state.
That's nothing to sneeze at. And it's also an opportunity too good to leave on the table, simply because we didn't play our cards right at a critical moment. Thinking outside the box of an Innovation Center to the more expansive Innovation Campus that with proper guidance, planning, and nurturing could organically grow to meet its full potential within a small district with the iconic Trico Building as a hub is a concept well worth embracing.
NOTE: The opinionated opinions I opine are entirely my own.