Retooling Innovation Districts for Mid-sized Cities

Part of an innovation hub in Pittsburgh, the Roundhouse at Hazelwood Green repurposes a piece of the old J&L Steel Mill as a co-working space for technology accelerator, OneValley.

The last decade has seen the emergence of what researchers at the Brookings Institute call “a new geography of innovation.” Once sequestered in the suburbs on corporate research campuses, the most innovative companies and entrepreneurs are finding their way back to more dense urban areas–and into innovation districts.

Not only a geographical designation, but a complex partnership, investment, and city planning strategy, as described by Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner, these districts “are geographic areas where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators and accelerators. They are also physically compact, transit-accessible, and technically-wired and offer mixed-use housing, office, and retail.”

This type of development isn’t just about innovation or lab space; and it’s not just universities or research institutions that are driving this change. Rather, innovation districts constitute a form of development that brings public and private research institutions (universities, hospitals, government institutes) together with cutting edge businesses, startups, developers, and state and local leaders, to invest in and reshape our cities. The factory jobs that had historically defined the economic life of the Midwestern US cities have been gone for a generation. Innovation districts point the way forward, not only in terms of generating solutions of our most pressing problems but also in terms of fostering the growth of sustainable jobs.

Responding, in part, to the desire of highly sought-after research talent for a more balanced, integrated life, innovation districts look beyond the office (and beyond the lab) to entice researchers with complete neighborhoods–places where you can live and work, catch a show, haunt a local coffee shop, and relax in a park. There are, of course, numerous other benefits, not only for workers, but for each of the institutions and actors involved in their development. Universities find increased access to capital for new projects while developers find reliable, long-term tenants; access top researchers while students and businesses benefit from their practical experience. Also, if done well, innovation districts can be a benefit to their neighborhoods by offering new resources (co-working spaces, meeting spaces, educational programming, and other amenities) while helping to advance current residents’ career paths.

Part of the Cincinnati Innovation District, the Digital Futures Complex in Cincinnati fosters connection between the building’s researchers and the surrounding community with ground level amenities and a large plaza to support public events. (GBBN)

The First Ten Years: A Decade of Districts

Their roots go back further, but innovation districts really began to attract attention as a joint development and growth strategy for research institutions, businesses, and their regions during the recovery from the 2008-2009 recession.

At the time, there were a handful of well-established examples that city planners, universities, and developers looked to in an effort to replicate their success. These are well-described in the 2014 Brookings Institute report, The Rise of Innovation Districts, which points to the models offered by Kendall Square (around MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital in Cambridge), the Cortex District in St. Louis (anchored by Washington University), Seattle’s South Lake Union area (University of Washington, Medicine, Amazon, and others), and urbanized science parks like Raleigh-Durham’s Research Triangle Park (anchored by North Carolina State University, Duke, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill).

Since then, however, there has been a veritable explosion of innovation districts. As much of the world transitions from an industrial to a service economy, the geography of innovation districts is displacing old industrial corridors—both in terms of their importance and sometimes—literally as old warehouses and industrial infrastructure are repurposed to act as technology accelerators and coworking spaces. Recent estimates suggest that there are well over 100 innovations districts emerging globally, including many in small to mid-sized cities like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Dayton, Cleveland, Memphis, Kansas City, Providence, and Chattanooga.

Featuring meeting rooms and gallery spaces, Digital Features puts research on display. (GBBN)

In Cincinnati, GBBN is working on multiple projects, including the construction of two new buildings at University of Cincinnati’s Digital Futures Complex and the creative reuse of a former church-turned-dental-office, as part of the Cincinnati Innovation District (anchored by University of Cincinnati, UC Health, and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center). The latter space, known as “the Beacon,” will provide a headquarters and incubator space for a minority-led venture capital fund, Lightship Capital and their partners.

We’ve also recently wrapped up a project in Pittsburgh that adapted an old steel mill’s 10-bay roundhouse for use as a coworking space for technology accelerator, OneValley. It’s part of a larger effort to transform the sprawling grounds of the shuttered J & L Steel Mill into an innovation hub and a model for sustainable development. With all of these projects, we are intentionally looking beyond the walls of the building to ensure that they are contributing to the larger neighborhood and innovation ecosystem.

It’s exciting to see the kind of energy and investment innovation districts bring about. They offer a real opportunity to improve life in our cities – big and small – not just for knowledge workers, but for everyone. However, the thinking about innovation districts hasn’t really caught up with the reality of their growing popularity as a strategy for growth.

The Next Ten Years: Local Adaptions

Our concern is that too much emphasis is put on replicating the achievements of a handful of successful models, like Boston’s Kendall Square and Seattle’s South Lake Union.

The message we’re sharing with our clients who are working on innovation districts is that “innovation districts are not one size fits all.” The first step in launching an innovation district is to figure out who you are as a city and a region. What are your existing strengths? Your emerging industries? What differentiates you from other cities and other innovation districts? Ultimately, this is a very involved step, because it involves taking stock of “who you are” as a city or region while beginning to develop partnerships that will help your innovation district succeed.

A key question is “what resources do you have available?” The fact is that many of those innovations districts that are treated as paradigms offer models that most cities and universities cannot realistically replicate.

As one writer cautions, it’s important to “dream big, but be realistic.” Washington University has an endowment of $8.5 billion, MIT’s is $18.4 billion. Drawing on these resources, these universities and their partners were able to launch innovation districts that were broad ranging in terms of the kinds of issues and initiatives they prioritize.

Most universities (and most cities) cannot command the same kinds of resources either in terms of endowments or in terms of the assets offered by well-established, field-leading research capacity. So, they must be more strategic in terms of how they define their mission and use their resources.

Think Locally (and Nationally)

Innovation districts have the curious quality of being both ultra-local and always national in orientation. They’re always national in orientation, because ultimately, they will compete with other cities and innovation districts to draw resources and investment from national and multinational firms. With this in mind, it doesn’t make any sense for up-and-coming innovation districts—especially those located in small to midsized cities or those anchored by less prestigious institutions—to simply replicate on a smaller scale what the most elite universities are doing. That is a losing proposition.

Instead of looking elsewhere, when leaders from research institutions, businesses, and local governments consider launching an innovation district, they need to begin by identifying and flexing their local strengths. This thinking should occur at many scales, but it’s especially important to consider placemaking at the neighborhood scale.

Particularly, in terms of drawing talent from elsewhere—or, depending on the city, stemming brain drain—a successful innovation district needs to flex the existing resources that make it unique. This might involve investing in cultural amenities to elevate the music or art scene of a neighborhood; investing in parks, so that your incredible river views don’t go unappreciated; Or investing in infrastructure in order to preserve an existing stock of historic buildings.

It’s not an innovation district, but in many respects Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation’s (3CDC) work in the neighborhood of Over The Rhine offers an insightful model. 3CDC’s work has been celebrated nationally for “turning a neighborhood that in 2009 topped Compton in Los Angeles for the “most dangerous” title into something that looks and feels like Greenwich Village.” They did this by making smart investments. Restoring what was at the time, a beautiful, but crumbling stock of buildings—the largest collection of Italianate architecture of any neighborhood in America—the organization preserved what made the neighborhood unique. This was reinforced by 3CDC taking a highly curatorial approach to its role as a landlord. They frequently turned away national chains. This surely made the job of filling out the neighborhood with commercial and retail tenants more difficult, but it also had the effect of turning the neighborhood into a unique destination. This was further reinforced by investing in parks – new amenities and programming now foster vibrant public spaces.

It is this kind of approach – this laser-focus on the local opportunities by which they could differentiate the neighborhood (paired with smart investments and the right partnerships) – that account for 3CDC’s success in Over The Rhine. Over The Rhine did not have the same level of activity or resources as a Greenwich Village, yet it regularly draws comparisons with some of the most desirable neighborhoods in the country.

Above and below: The Roundhouse at Hazelwood Green in Pittsburgh, before and after. (GBBN)

Our clients at Hazelwood Green are affecting a similar transformation in Pittsburgh. Transforming a brownfield along the Monongahela River into a center for innovation and a model of sustainable development, they are repurposing the industrial remains of the shuttered, 178-acre J&L Steel Mill to support the knowledge economy. Our design of the Roundhouse at Hazelwood Green has turned a cavernous building that once serviced and turned trains, redirecting their materials through the production process, into an inspiring, light-filled technology accelerator and coworking space. Using a light touch to celebrate the rich materials of the existing structure, the space forms a bridge between Pittsburgh’s industrial past and its hi-tech future. Creating an inviting public space, native plants and public art have been used to integrate the site’s industrial remains—its turntable, a shed’s steel frame—into the landscape while multimodal transit connects the site to the surrounding neighborhood, downtown, and beyond. A similar approach has been taken with other pieces of this property, including Mill 19, which is now home to Carnegie Mellon University’s Manufacturing Futures Institute.

The point in all this is to be yourself. You can’t out-Boston Boston, and you shouldn’t be trying. If you’re contemplating developing an innovation district in a small to medium-sized city, you would do well to train your eye on identifying, investing in, and developing the strengths that differentiate your neighborhood.

CHAD BURKE, AIA, LEED AP is director of commercial and workplace at GBBN and a member of ULI Cincinnati. ZACHARY ZETTLER, AIA, LEED AP is GBBN’s Director of Higher Education.

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