University of Maryland student Eddie Reyes paused in front of the balloon-adorned railing of College Park’s latest tenant, TargetExpress, unsure of what to expect from yet another new business along a Route 1 corridor that has seen many stores come and go.
The university, Prince George’s County and city officials have struggled for decades to see College Park mature into the kind of college town where faculty would enjoy living and students would want to stay after graduation and start businesses.
But good shopping and entertainment is still a rarity around the campus, and many housing options have traditionally been shabby — even for students.
Now the opening of the TargetExpress — the first of its kind on the East Coast — is being hailed by local officials as a harbinger of change.
A fledgling but strengthening partnership between the university, the county and the city has generated opportunities for a walkable, urbanized corridor of tech start-ups, apartments and higher-end retail.
Construction cranes dot the landscape, gradually replacing grubby student housing, decrepit buildings and overgrown lots with residences, a new hotel and a conjoined hotel and conference center.
“For many years, Baltimore Avenue used to divide the campus from the community,” said Carlo Colello, the university’s vice president for administration and finance. “But now we want it to be a zipper connecting them.”
The mini-Target is anchoring the ground-floor retail space of Landmark College Park, an apartment complex across the street from the university’s South Campus entrance, where upperclassmen often congregate.
“I’m a huge fan of Target, and I’m very excited about what’s happening in College Park,” said Reyes, 22. “I’m a senior now, and when you mature, you want more things like nice places to eat and shop and not have to go to D.C. for everything.”
About 15 percent the size of an average store, it is designed to be nimble enough to respond to its customers’ needs, store officials said. On move-in weekend in College Park, the store will have must-haves such as hangers and bed sheets for sale. But it will revert to convenience-store stock — easy-prep food, breakfast items, fresh produce and frozen pizza — once classes are underway.
Electronics, makeup, and a small apparel section, with a few ties, socks and belts for the occasional job interview, round out the offerings. Customers can also order merchandise online or from inside the store and have it delivered to TargetExpress for them to pick up.
“It’s a nice fit,” said Andre Fletcher, who lives in the District and uses mass transit to reach his job in U-Md.’s registrar office. “It seems they are creating more of a community instead of just a destination.” He said the fresh produce the store sells is an unexpected bonus that will help him avoid an extra stop on his commute home.
On the same day that the store opened, College Park officials hosted a showcase of business opportunities at nearby Ritchie Coliseum. The offerings included invitations for developers to bid on the opportunity to develop property owned by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority near the College Park station.
The two parcels are adjacent to the university’s M Square research park, which is home to federal research labs and complementary firms as well as a proposed Purple Line light-rail station.
Officials are looking for companies willing to build residential and commercial projects that would have pedestrian-friendly retail on the first floor and complement the existing offices nearby.
Real estate developer Ronald Paul, a University of Maryland alumnus who will develop university-owned land near the Metro parcels, said he is planning to build multifamily housing that he hopes will help College Park become more like the campus communities its Big Ten conference rivals boast.
“When I graduated, I truly felt College Park was amazingly underutilized,” said Paul. “I bleed Terp, and I believe Maryland will become like a University of Michigan.”