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Soon after Katie Lapp was hired as Harvard University’s executive vice president in 2009, Craig Carnaroli, her counterpart at Penn, came to visit her at the university’s Cambridge campus.

“Boy, do you have a problem,” Carnaroli said, according to Lapp. Earlier in the year, Harvard had announced that, following a historic hit to its endowment, it would be halting development work on its Allston campus, located across the Charles River. At the time, it was unclear if the Allston campus, once intended to be a major boon to Boston’s economy, would ever come to fruition. The 2009 scaling back of that project, Lapp said, led to a deep sense of mistrust between the Allston community, the city and Harvard.

Lapp, along with a small group of peer executive vice presidents, university financial officers and development consultants, spoke on Penn’s campus Thursday evening about the opportunities and challenges that urban universities face in their community development efforts. Hosted by Penn’s Institute for Urban Research, the event — a panel discussion called “The Power of Eds & Meds: How Urban Universities are Leading Neighborhood and Innovation-Based Economic Development” — featured top administrators from some of the nation’s largest urban research institutions, including Penn, Harvard, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago.

A theme that emerged during the panel discussion was that Penn, as the “urban Ivy,” is a leader on the community development front. Carnaroli spoke on Thursday about how the University has, by and large, managed to move past its rocky history with the West Philadelphia community. Much of Penn’s urban development focus now, Carnaroli said, is on creating an “innovation district” at the South Bank, the University’s new land east of the Schuylkill River.

“Penn is definitely seen as a leader in urban revitalization,” Eugenie Birch, a PennDesign professor, co-director of the Institute for Urban Research and moderator of Thursday’s panel discussion, said. “Penn, and many of our peers, is going to be the driving force behind economic growth in our city, our region and in the United States.”

Thursday’s panelists agreed that, while there are several best practices for urban universities to keep in mind when working with their surrounding communities, there is no one-size-fits-all model for urban renewal and engagement.

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“The reason we can’t just pick what somebody else is doing and plop it down on our campuses is that we’re working on very different sets of issues,” Nim Chinniah, the University of Chicago’s chief financial officer and executive vice president for administration, said. “A lot of these development efforts aren’t very replicable, even though there are issues that many of these institutions can share.”

Some of those issues, panelists said, are marketing ones. Andrew Frank, a special economic development adviser to Johns Hopkins President Ronald Daniels — a former Penn provost — spoke on Thursday about the Baltimore university’s development efforts in the “Middle East,” a crime-ridden and unemployment-filled neighborhood located in the heart of East Baltimore.

“It’s not easy to market development in an area called the ‘Middle East,’” Frank said. For more than a decade, Johns Hopkins has collaborated with the city on the East Baltimore Development Initiative, an aggressive redevelopment effort that includes taking over a struggling public school and overhauling the local housing market.

Other times, urban universities face communication challenges in working through their renewal and expansion efforts. Lapp, for example, emphasized the important role that Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s president, has played in keeping the community updated about the status of the university’s Allston campus. Following the 2009 delay, planning for the Allston campus, which will host the university’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is moving forward once again.

Lapp, Carnaroli and the other panelists will participate in several closed discussions throughout the day Friday on universities and urban renewal.

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