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With development coming on all sides, Howard University takes a look inward

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Howard University sits in the midst of one of the country’s best real estate markets, and there are signs all around it.

A few blocks to the west, a 184-unit building, View 14, recently sold for $104 million, or $670 per square foot, maybe the highest ever for a Washington apartment building.

A few blocks to the south, atop the Metro station that bears the university’s name, the mixed-use “Progression Place” is under construction, which will add another new 205 apartments and a new headquarters for the United Negro College Fund.

While the neighborhood around it has seen an incredible growth of new housing and retail in the past 20 years, Howard has allowed large swaths of property its owns in the Cardozo-Shaw neighborhood north of U Street Northwest to be used as surface parking lots or to languish vacant.

Meanwhile Howard residence halls are currently able to house just 45 percent of the school’s students, compared with 60 to 70 percent at competing schools. Of the students who do live on campus, about three-quarters live in buildings that are at least 50 years old.

The lack of progress has frustrated students, neighbors and potential development partners.

Tony Norman, an advisory neighborhood commissioner near Howard, said he has been waiting for the university to build new housing for years, only to see plans fall apart. “They did have a couple of dorms proposed and for one reason or another had to abandon them,” he said.

Some real estate developers, interested in partnering with Howard, have given up after waiting on administrators, said Merrick Malone, a local developer and president of the D.C. Building Industry Association. “They take so long to make decisions, and then when they make decisions they don’t necessarily stick,” Malone said.

The false starts may be coming to an end. Howard lately is talking about turning things around, spurred by a new president.

Like three other D.C. universities, Howard is in the process of updating its campus plan. Maybelle Taylor Bennett, a Howard University planner and director of the school’s community association, said President Sidney A. Ribeau is focused on evolving the campus to match Howard’s changing academic needs. Ribeau took the helm in 2008 and in early 2009 Howard hired the global architecture giant HOK to direct design.

“There was a time when the best and brightest African Americans only had a few options, and now they have many more choices. . . We’re not going to be competitive if we don’t change, and maybe that point wasn’t strongly enough made in the past,” said Bennett, a former member of the D.C. Zoning Commission.

She said development and changes around the school only added to the urgency. “We can either take charge of that or get in the way of that, and we need to take charge of that because this is our historical home,” she said.

Topping the list of changes are two dorms the university plans to begin building in the spring of next year for occupancy in 2014. The school is also looking to finally begin Howard Town Center, a multi-use project first proposed in 2002 that is supposed to bring a grocery store and other retailers to the intersection of Georgia Avenue and V Street. Howard selected and then jettisoned a development team of Trammell Crow Co. and Michele Hagans, a Howard alumna. Then two years ago it selected a new team, now made up of Castlerock Partners and the Cohen Cos.

The new development team has not announced any financing plans or retail tenants, but Bennett said the project was progressing and that the university was looking to upgrade retail along Georgia Avenue. Already the school has signed Potbelly Sandwich Shop to a lease. Bennett said that the plan begins to shift Howard’s epicenter in that direction. “Over time, the center of gravity is shifting to the south,” she said.

Malone said there was plenty of time for Howard to take advantage of its assets and turn things around. “They should be in the middle of the action and if they were a reliable partner, a consistent, reliable partner, I think you would see the development community embrace them and I think it would benefit the university tremendously,” he said.

Jair Lynch, a D.C. developer with offices on U Street, has worked on all sides of the Howard campus and said developers would be eager to form partnerships with the school. “They are very much in the next growth of U Street-East, with a lot of their parking lots and lot of their buildings, and I think they would get a lot of interest,” he said.

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