U-Md. Project Envisions A Livelier College Park

By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 7, 2008; B01

In Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania replaced an old parking lot with upscale stores, restaurants and a luxury hotel.

Just outside Atlanta, Georgia Tech created a high-tech corridor to integrate with the local business community by building an office and research park, a hotel, a conference center and shops on its campus.

Now, in College Park, the University of Maryland is working to replicate those public-private initiatives by redeveloping a 38-acre tract of land into a bustling town center with sit-down restaurants, student housing, offices, an upscale grocer, a four-star hotel, movie theater, bookstore and entertainment venue.

The University of Maryland lacks many of the amenities found near other colleges, including a grocery store and upscale restaurants.

"Maryland has a goal to be a top 10 university, and they realize without a top 10 college town, they would never make it," said Douglas M. Duncan, the former Montgomery County executive and the university's vice president for administrative affairs, who is overseeing the project.

The $700 million development, to be called East Campus, will be used to lure faculty and students and to link the university with the surrounding neighborhood. The project is part of a growing trend on college campuses that are trying to improve recruiting efforts and strained neighborhood relationships.

Duncan said he was surprised by the mistrust and tension between the university and its community when he began working on the project. For the development to be successful, he said tensions would need to be eased.

"This is for the community. This is for Prince George's County," Duncan said. "We want [the community] to come to it and be proud of it."

The University of Maryland plans to tear down old student housing, abandoned research greenhouses, its mail facility and maintenance buildings to create an area where students and residents of the College Park community can shop, dine and gather for concerts.

University officials estimate that the first phase, including most of the housing and other buildings, will be completed by 2011. The second phase, which will include housing for graduate students, would open in 2014.

The Birchmere plans to open a 500-seat, state-of-the-art music venue at the location by 2010, and the university and its developer are working to secure a specialty grocer, such as Whole Foods or Harris Teeter.

East Campus will try to attract a movie theater chain, such as Sundance Cinemas or Landmark Theatres, which offer an array of wide-release and independent films, Duncan said.

A power plant and new undergraduate housing already on the site will remain there.

University officials will seek $125 million in public financing for a parking garage, they said. The university will ask for tax increment financing for the project, which dedicates revenue from the project to finance the debt that was issued to pay for it, Duncan said. It will also look to the state to help with road improvements along Route 1.

University officials want the East Campus district, which is nearly twice the size of the original redevelopment of downtown Silver Spring, to be part of the state's rail plans for Metro's Purple Line.

"It's going to be a first for Prince George's, a whole village next to a Metro center," Duncan said.

The University of Maryland plans to learn from the experiences of the University of Pennsylvania, which was viewed as a behemoth in its West Philadelphia neighborhood. The school is now considered an example for universities entering into public-private ventures on their campuses.

Craig Carnaroli, executive vice president at the University of Pennsylvania, said venturing into real estate was a strategic move for the university, which realized that "50,000 people traversed through its area a day and they wanted more than a cup of coffee."

The school also understood that violent crime along campus borders was affecting its recruiting. By creating after-hours activity and employment, the university helped deter crime.

"Instead of sheltering ourselves, we engaged ourselves," Carnaroli said.

Because the university is not in the middle of a city, Duncan plans to incorporate a lot of the ideas used to create the town centers in Silver Spring and Rockville.

Many residents have voiced strong opinions about what they want the area to look like, and particularly what they don't want it to look like.

"It should be something special, not just Silver Spring Two," said Bridget Warren, a resident of University Park and a representative on the project's community review steering committee. "It should be architecturally and environmentally innovative."

When Warren drove along Route 1 to drop off her U-Haul after moving to the area, she said she kept looking for the bookstores, cafes and funky shops near campus. She never found them.

Now, with all the buzz about a new development to lure students and faculty, many residents envision Madison, Wis., or Charlottesville as part of their community, not Silver Spring or Gaithersburg, Warren said.

Leo Shapiro, a College Park resident and a research assistant professor at the university who sits on the committee, said "most people are cautiously optimistic" about the project.

Still, for many people, there seem to be more questions than answers. Will the development offer a mixture of chain and local stores? How will it affect traffic? Will economic development improve on Route 1 near the university?

"The project will have a lot of impact on the community, and we want to make sure it is positive impact," said County Council member Eric Olson (D-College Park).

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