AUB President John Waterbury introduced Blaik, crediting him with the inception of the Neighborhood Initiative, which was launched in 2007 by a small team of AUBites led by anthropologist and urban architect Cynthia Myntti, who have been working on understanding the impact of the University on its neighborhood and on Beirut as a whole, seeking to find ways AUB could act constructively to make Ras Beirut a better neighborhood for all its inhabitants.
Waterbury added: "It's a pleasure for me to introduce Omar Blaik who has a great combination of skills that include an MBA and an engineering background."
"Most people recognize that universities are part of the narrative of the city because of their long-standing history," Blaik said. "But what is less known is their direct and indirect economic impact." He added that universities are often among the largest employers in a given city, big consumers of energy, goods and services, and they impact real estate markets, in addition to acting as a rich source of arts, culture and scientific research.
"Indeed, decisions that universities make internally have a huge impact on the outside world," he said. "For instance, should you house all students on campus or not? ... How do you manage all this? Do you engage in your community or do you retreat into academia?"
Taking examples of success stories from the UPenn, University of Chicago, and University of Colorado as well as others, Blaik argued that one of the best ways to improve revenues for both the urban university and its host community is by optimizing the use of physical space in such a way as to create mixed-use retail and residential areas. Blaik noted that when he joined UPenn in the late 1990s, it had been suffering from the deterioration of its West Philadelphia neighborhood which had fallen from a middle-and-upper-middle class community to one where crime was common. He also found the university fortifying itself within its campus walls. But his solution was actually to open it up to the community and convince private real-estate and retail companies to develop shops that would both benefit the university and the neighborhood. In the end, the university leveraged $700 million in privatized money in order to create a community at the edges of campus that provides bookstores, cafes, restaurants, hotels, retail shops and housing to both campus residents and the neighborhoods. As a result, the university built a bridge with its host community and everyone had a stake to make it succeed, he said. "The aim was to improve safety in the community, invest in public education and integrate the university in the urban fabric," he added.
For universities, engaging in their neighborhoods allows them to produce more enlightened students, enhances the opportunity for "real and impact-full" research, and provides greater opportunity to disseminate their intellectual discourse. For a city, engagement anchors a neighborhood providing long-term and sustainable development, while creating a unique mixed-use district that integrates academic life in the public realm.
Blaik also had some tips for AUB. He suggested that the University should relocate its public-interest facilities outside the campus boundaries, help establish a world-class bookstore in the neighborhood, and transform defunct movie theaters into arts and entertainment centers. Moreover, Blaik encouraged AUB decision-makers to lead an effort to rethink what kind of retail should exist on Bliss Street as well as developing a comprehensive housing strategy that would give incentives for faculty and staff to live in Ras Beirut.