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Virginia Tech breaks ground on new campus in Alexandria

A rendering of Virginia Tech's Innovation Campus. (Virginia Tech)
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Potomac Yard, the riverfront neighborhood at the northern tip of Alexandria, has evolved from a regional rail hub into a toxic-waste site and then a strip mall anchored by big-box stores and apartment complexes. At one point, it almost became home to D.C.'s football team.

Now the area is taking a step toward another transformation: Virginia Tech on Tuesday broke ground on its 3.5-acre Innovation Campus, a graduate school meant to expand the workforce for Northern Virginia’s booming tech sector — and turn the surrounding neighborhood into a key node in that industry.

“The location of the Innovation Campus will allow it to catalyze the broader tech industry in the greater Washington, D.C., area,” Lance Collins, the campus’s vice president and executive director, told a crowd of several dozen gathered under a tent at the future site of the campus. “It will unite the three pillars of technology — the private and public sectors and academia — to focus the D.C. region on the challenges that matter most.”

Originally slated for a location just a few blocks across Route 1, the $1 billion project is meant to serve as an educational anchor for National Landing, the Northern Virginia tech hub that local officials have sought to promote around Amazon’s second headquarters in Arlington. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Collins said in an interview that the campus will be well integrated into the innovation district: The planned Potomac Yard Metro station will put students just a few stops from the Amazon headquarters, and Amazon and other major tech employers will play a role in the classroom.

Rather than pursuing traditional coursework, students will work on group projects sponsored by Amazon or another tech-focused company in the region.

“This will be looking at the ways in which, through our understanding of what’s going on in the federal government and in the private sector, we can continue to work on the important problems,” Collins said.

Other companies set to partner with Virginia Tech include the wireless giant Qualcomm, defense contractor Northrop Grumman and aviation company Boeing, which earlier this summer gave the school $50 million for financial aid and other diversity initiatives.

Virginia Tech expects that the campus — which Collins and other school officials have declared will be the “most diverse graduate engineering school in the country” — will host about 770 students annually by 2030.

About 100 graduate students have already begun attending in-person classes at a temporary space in Falls Church, and the school is actively recruiting outside faculty members as well as professors from its main campus in Blacksburg.

Boeing is giving Virginia Tech $50 million to help launch new campus

Collins also said he hopes to leverage connections with nearby federal agencies and work with the public school system in Alexandria to develop science, technology and engineering programs for much younger students in the area, particularly those coming from backgrounds that are underrepresented in the tech industry.

The first building on the campus, an 11-story, gem-shaped academic center covered in solar panels, is expected to open by fall 2024. Like the Amazon headquarters in Crystal City, officials say, it will reshape the blocks east of the Potomac Yard Center shopping center, which were previously filled by a movie theater and parking lot.

JBG Smith, which is the dominant landowner and primary developer behind the National Landing hub, plans to use the Innovation Campus as the anchor for a 19-acre mixed-use development in the neighborhood, also focused on tech and innovation.

The company’s chief executive, Matt Kelly, said in a statement that the campus will become a “magnet” for a “vibrant district” of university partners and businesses serving students and faculty members.

Earlier this year, the developer and AT&T announced commitments to 5G connectivity throughout the area, with the goal of making it a “smart city at scale” that could one day test out self-driving cars.

First chief of Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus in D.C. area comes from Cornell

Some nearby residents have expressed concerns about the construction process. Del. Mark H. Levine (D-Alexandria), who attended the groundbreaking ceremony, said he is calling on the school to pay construction workers at the site a “prevailing wage,” or rates competitive with the private sector, as Amazon has done in Arlington.

Though a Virginia law that went into effect this year requires that standard at most public construction projects, the university is one of five institutions that are not necessarily required to meet that rule, Levine said. Virginia has committed to covering $167.7 million of construction costs through a state program intended to boost the tech economy.

Virginia Tech said in a statement, “Pursuant to our contract with the Commonwealth of Virginia, Virginia Tech isn’t required to pay a prevailing wage.”