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UW Dept. of Bioengineering, South Lake Union campus

Seattle is the proud home of the University of Washington, and also hosts Seattle University on First Hill and Seattle Pacific University on the north slope of Queen Anne, as well as a great set of community colleges.  And there is also the campus of Antioch University Seattle at 6th and Battery near South Lake Union, and the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, which offers classes at 4th and Vine.  Seattle’s universities and community colleges enrolled more than 106,000 students in the 2011-2012 academic year. 

Now a new complex of universities is emerging downtown, creating an interesting set of options for students and employers of students who are looking for additional course work, degrees, or research opportunities. Seattle policy makers should accelerate our work to embrace this development and the associated economic activity.

The original home of the University of Washington was downtown, in a group of blocks called the ‘Metropolitan Tract’, which the University still owns and receives substantial revenue from.  The Washington Territorial Legislature decided to locate the University in Seattle in 1860, early in the history of the Washington Territory.  Legend has it that Seattle was the third largest city at the time, and there were three public facilities to be allocated.  Walla Walla, as the largest city, got the state prison; Olympia, the second largest, got the State Capitol; and Seattle got the University, which existed only as a gleam in the eyes of those who foresaw its possible future.

Seattle has been very fortunate to have the University of Washington, not only as a great educational facility, but as a premier research institution which consistently ranks as one of the top recipients of federal funding contracts and grants.  UW is also a robust center for entrepreneurial activity.  In addition to a significant commitment to fostering the growth of small business through a variety of programs and an incubator facility, a number of companies have been launched by UW faculty, often to take the next steps in building commercial applications that can be spun off from research at the University.

The University of Washington School of Medicine has developed a campus in South Lake Union, designed to complement the emerging biotechnology and world health economic sectors that are centered in that neighborhood.  This campus now includes some 1250 researchers and staff in four buildings, and is expected to continue to expand.

Two other universities will be Joining Antioch and the UW South Lake Union campus in the emerging downtown university district.  City University of Seattle is an independent University with main offices (somewhat anomalously) in Bellevue.  They have made a decision that their future lies in reconciling their name with their location, but more importantly taking advantage of the urban setting and the transportation and housing options that Seattle offers for their students.  They have entered into a lease for the former P-I/Group Health building at 6th and Wall, and will be opening their doors there in January of 2013.

Further strengthening this emerging educational center will be Northeastern University , based in Boston, which has announced its intent to establish a branch in Seattle that will ultimately serve up to 1000 students.  The Seattle campus will offer graduate degrees “tailored to the workforce needs of the local economy”.  While they have not selected a location as yet, downtown is their preferred option.

There is a wonderful synergy between great cities and great universities.  City University and Northeastern are locating downtown because of the value they place on being in the middle of vibrant, culturally rich, and diverse  neighborhoods with a dense concentration of residents and employers.  There will be prospective students, jobs, internship opportunities, and student housing in close proximity.  And others who are interested will have easy access because these areas are served by light rail, street cars, bus systems, and good bicycle and pedestrian facilities.  The City’s task is to ensure that these transportation systems are maintained and expanded, as well as to protect public safety and support other employers and housing opportunities.

The next economy will be built around creativity and a highly educated work force oriented towards lifelong learning.  The emerging downtown university complex bodes well for Seattle’s future in harvesting this potential.