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Virginia Tech marks milestone, raises final beam on Innovation Campus building

The facility is slated to open in fall 2024

Virginia Tech's Liza Morris talks about building materials at the Alexandria site. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
6 min

Stepping over rough gravel near the Potomac with a giant crane swinging overhead, Ken Smith, the chief operating officer of the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus, said, “You’re actually inside the building right now — we’re in the two-story atrium space.”

It took a little imagination, but then again, Smith was leading a construction tour at the symbolic midpoint of a project poised to transform technology education in the region. For years, university, industry and civic leaders have been collaborating on plans to lure tech companies to Northern Virginia, revitalize a neighborhood just across the river from the nation’s capital, and educate an increasingly diverse group of students to use technology to solve problems.

What’s now a skeleton of a building with construction materials stacked in piles, workers in hard hats clattering up dusty metal steps and plastic sheeting flapping in the wind, is expected to be the centerpiece of a 3½-acre campus opening in fall 2024.

The building, shaped like a gem with facets designed to maximize its solar-power-generating potential, will be topped with a roof deck with views of the Washington Monument and Capitol dome.

The Virginia Tech Innovation Campus is in many ways the crown jewel of the state’s $1 billion Tech Talent Investment Program, an ambitious effort by Virginia officials to produce an additional 25,000 computer science graduates at schools in the commonwealth over two decades.

Sanju Bansal, a technology entrepreneur and the chair of the Innovation Campus advisory board, said his companies have had to import engineers from all over the country and world. Soon he hopes to select hires from a pool of talent educated in Northern Virginia.

And the university is hoping its graduates are more diverse than computer science engineers have traditionally been: Through partnerships with K-12 schools and other efforts, it hopes to attract more women and underrepresented minorities, Lance Collins, executive director of the Innovation Campus, said in an interview Monday.

Already, nearly 300 graduate students are taking classes in Falls Church. Eventually, the enrollment is expected to be about 750 students, taught by 50 faculty members, with degrees built around projects.

Students will be organized into teams and work on projects that originate from companies, Collins said. In that way, they will have exposure to real-world challenges and will develop technical knowledge and professional skills, he said, such as leadership of a team, project management and communication.

Research will focus on four main areas: artificial intelligence and machine learning, wireless technology, quantum information sciences, and intelligent interfaces working to make human and machine interaction easier.

On a tour Tuesday of the first of three planned buildings for the campus, Smith said the street view will be of students working in labs. In addition to classrooms, the campus will have a cyber lab adjacent to a two story drone-testing cage. A maker space will allow students to craft projects with 3D printing and other technology, while another lab will be capable of projecting data, art and other visual representations onto three walls and the floor for an immersive experience.

State leaders have said the Innovation Campus, rather than tax breaks or other traditional economic incentives, was the key factor in Arlington County winning a fiercely competitive bid to host Amazon’s second headquarters. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

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As they see it, the campus will train engineers who might fill some of the 25,000 jobs Amazon has promised to bring to Arlington and attract other talent-hungry companies to the region. So far, it’s a strategy that they say is working: The defense heavyweights Boeing and Raytheon both announced last year that they would both be relocating their headquarters to Arlington, putting them a stone’s throw from the Pentagon and bringing a reputational boost — though not many new jobs — to Northern Virginia.

Virginia Tech breaks ground on new campus in Alexandria

The new Virginia Tech campus also promises to transform Alexandria’s Potomac Yard neighborhood, best known now as the site of a large strip mall. Metro is close to opening a much-delayed new Yellow Line stop, the system’s first infill station in decades, just a few blocks from the engineering school, in part thanks to state funding secured through Virginia’s deal with Amazon.

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JBG Smith, the dominant landowner and primary developer behind National Landing, has also said it plans to use the Virginia Tech campus to anchor a 19-acre mixed-use development in Potomac Yard. The company has put a nearby set of apartments on hold because of “inflated construction pricing.”

Hub for military vets coming to Virginia Tech’s new Alexandria campus

Amazon stands to receive up to $573 million in incentives from local and state officials if it meets hiring and occupancy goals, or $773 million if it surpasses them. The e-commerce giant has made no indication so far of plans to slow hiring in Arlington or lower its targets despite ongoing layoffs within the company and across the tech sector.

Despite recent tech layoffs, Collins said demand is still strong for skilled graduates. “Technology is now touching a really wide range of industries,” he said, such as banking and insurance.

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Labor unions, immigrant advocacy groups and some area elected officials had for several years been pressuring Virginia Tech and its general contractor, Whiting-Turner, to pay construction workers at the site a “prevailing wage,” or pay rates competitive with the private sector.

Amazon had adopted a similar standard at its headquarters in Arlington, and a 2021 Virginia law requires state officials to pay this standard at most public works projects. But the university is one of five institutions that is exempted from that rule.

Virginia Tech contracted with Whiting-Turner to be the construction manager at risk, and subcontract the trade work, according to the university.

Whiting-Turner hired SkillSmart to perform ongoing payroll audits and ensure workers are being paid fairly, Dwyn Taylor, assistant vice president for capital construction at Virginia Tech, wrote in an email.

Whiting-Turner, which had been hired by Amazon as the general contractor for its second headquarters, is no longer involved with that project.

On Tuesday, university, industry and government supporters — some wearing Virginia Tech hats — gathered in a cavernous unfinished area that will one day be a 200-person classroom and event space.

After hearing from speakers such as Alexandria’s mayor and Virginia Tech’s president, they went outside, their steps crunching on the gravel as a Metro train rattled past, to watch the final 37-foot beam be hoisted into place.