University Lands

Over the course of the next week, colleges and universities across Atlanta will restart classes for the fall semester. But teaching classes and offering degrees is only one – sometimes small – aspect of what universities do nowadays. While fielding sports teams is obviously one element of this larger project, universities are just as oriented towards the accumulation of property (both real and intellectual) and the development of real estate.

Of course universities need space for buildings to house classrooms, offices and dormitories, but the modern university’s appetite for real estate goes far beyond these bare necessities. In Atlanta and across the country, colleges and universities buy up nearby properties not just to meet their present day needs, but also to get rid of nuisances nearby and speculate on future growth. Universities aren’t just a passive supporter of the urban growth machine; they’re an active player in it. And just like any other landlord or real estate developer, they use many of the same tactics for concealing the full extent of their holdings, registering their properties under different corporate entities and with different mailing addresses. But having access to bulk parcel data allows us to cut through some of this opacity by cross-referencing ownership records to identify (in most cases) who actually owns or controls a given property.

In the City of Atlanta, the nine universities with a significant presence collectively own 800 parcels totaling nearly 1,500 acres, which are appraised at nearly $2.5 billion – all of which is untaxed because of the universities’ non-profit status. But many of these investments, from Georgia Tech jumping over the connector to construct Tech Square in the early 2000s to Georgia State’s downtown growth and more recent purchase of Turner Field and expansion into Summerhill, aren’t necessarily meant to serve the academic mission of the universities, but rather to promote certain kinds of economic development and, usually, gentrification.

By far the biggest university landowner within Atlanta is Emory University, much of which sat outside the city limits until its annexation by the city on January 1, 2018. Even if one were to aggregate all the public institutions in the city that are governed by the University System of Georgia in one group, and all the historically Black colleges and universities that make up the Atlanta University Center in another, their 527 and 247 acres, respectively, would still not come close to Emory’s 700+ acres within the city limits (along with a good deal more outside the city in DeKalb County). These properties are cumulatively valued at over $750 million, which, as we might remind you, is probably an underestimate because of how the tax assessors work around here.

University# of Parcels# of AcresTotal Appraised Value of All Properties
Emory123705$753,316,795
Georgia Tech361363$672,445,900
Morehouse150108$106,716,100
Georgia State7899$595,179,900
Clark Atlanta6185$113,509,700
Atlanta Metro565$25,329,900
Spelman547$18,478,800
SCAD1315$123,185,800
Morris Brown48$7,970,900
TOTAL8001495$2,416,133,795

Meanwhile, despite having just the second-smallest footprint by acreage with 13 properties taking up roughly 15 acres of land, the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Atlanta holdings are disproportionately higher valued. In fact, SCAD’s properties are more valuable than each of Atlanta’s HBCUs. Even Morehouse College’s 107 acres of land and Clark Atlanta University’s 84 acres are valued at just $106.7 million and $113.5 million, respectively, while SCAD’s much smaller footprint is appraised at over $123 million. We’re totally positive this has nothing to do with the historic devaluation of property in predominantly Black parts of the city, though.

Apart from the extent of their holdings and their valuation, each of the city’s universities also displays its own unique spatial pattern of property ownership. Even though we typically think of college campuses as being largely self-contained, most of Atlanta’s universities have a bit more scattered pattern of property ownership, across the city. For instance, Emory’s various healthcare facilities are located in Midtown several miles from its main campus, while Georgia Tech holds various properties scattered north of its main campus, and SCAD’s combination of buildings stretches from the northern edges of Midtown down to Ponce. Even Morehouse and Clark Atlanta own properties quite far from their main campuses. And then there’s Georgia State, who besides the recent expansion into Summerhill, has always been atypical in that the university is scattered throughout downtown, only rarely for more than a couple of consecutive blocks. If we were to look beyond the city limits this pattern would only be exacerbated for Georgia State thanks to its subsumption of Perimeter College several years ago.

But given these trends in universities acting as landlords and developers, the only thing seeming to stand in the way of their continued expansion is the egregiously high property values and sales prices we see everywhere else across the city and metro.

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