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Capital Business
Posted at 01:05 PM ET, 06/27/2013

Howard University’s town center project falls apart — again

Howard University students during homecoming festivities last year. (Astrid Riecken - For The Washington Post)
Howard University, despite its location in the midst of one of the District’s hottest neighborhoods, has cut ties with its development partner for its town center project, further delaying plans that promised to bring a grocery store and 445 apartments to lower Georgia Avenue.

The university has been planning the project for more than a decade, but is nearly back at the starting gates after splitting ways with developer the Cohen Cos.

University spokeswoman Kerry-Ann Hamilton said Thursday in an e-mail that the school had terminated a ground lease with Cohen for the project because the developer had not lived up to the terms of the lease.

“We took this action because of the failure of the developer to meet certain benchmarks under the ground lease and development agreements,” she said.

Eric Siegel of the Cohen Cos. did not return requests for comment.

The school said it is assessing its options: “The University’s goal is to continue working towards the successful implementation and completion of the Howard Town Center.”

Cohen was not the first developer that Howard has tried to work with to build its town center. It began working with Howard alumna Michele Hagans and Trammell Crow Co. in 2003. When that partnership failed, Howard sought bids from developers and selected Castlerock Partners in 2008 — only to see the project again stall for years.

Things seemed to progress after Cohen Cos., based in Rockville, entered the picture. Cohen inked an agreement for a Fresh Grocer grocery store to open in the project and signed a lease with the university for the land, on the northwest corner of Georgia Avenue and V Street NW.

Cohen planned a $143 million residential and retail project with 445 apartments with 74,000 square feet of retail space and 320 underground parking spaces. The project would have addressed the school’s mounting housing shortage; though Howard is building two new residents halls on Fourth Street NW, university housing is currently able to house less than half the school’s students, compared with 60 to 70 percent at competing schools. The university’s vice chairwoman warned recently that the school “is in genuine trouble” because of fiscal and management issues.

The District government has gone to considerable lengths to help Howard with the project, agreeing to trade the school a piece of needed land and last year issuing the project an $11 million tax break over the objections of the District’s chief financial officer.

But the most recent plans failed to account for the potential historic value of some of the existing buildings on the site that Cohen and the university planned to tear down, prompting scrutiny from District historic preservation officials that could have led to costly changes.

The news was reported earlier Thursday by the Washington City Paper.

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz

By  |  01:05 PM ET, 06/27/2013

Tags:  Howard University, Cohen Cos., commercial real estate

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