In mainstream media, policy circles and academic scholarship, economic discourses have highlighted the importance of knowledge, creativity and innovation for generating economic growth. This has been translated into an urban planning and policy agenda which favours the establishment of research parks, innovation clusters, and especially universities along with amenities to attract creative‐class workers. In much of this literature universities are invested with an almost magical power to spur economic growth, and the benign language of ‘transition’ is used suggesting a rather seamless progression from one urban economic engine to another. Through analysis of policy documents and key informant interviews related to the establishment of a new university in Oshawa, Ontario, this case study seeks to challenge the straightforward relationship that is assumed to exist between universities and local economic development. Like other lagging regions across the OECD attempting to repair their economies through creative and knowledge urbanism, Oshawa’s recent achievements are tempered by growing concerns about poverty, homelessness and inequality. Planners and policymakers that mistake the complexities of economic restructuring for a smooth ‘urban transition’ put their cities and citizens at risk of creating new problems out of efforts to improve local conditions.