For nearly a decade, the University of Maryland studied proposal after proposal for a parcel of vacant land in the heart of College Park’s Route 1 corridor. Negotiations with developers went nowhere. An ambitious plan for a town center fell apart twice.
Now the site that once was home to the university’s research greenhouse facility is about to become the pinnacle of College Park luxury: Developer David Hillman plans to build a conference center and hotel with 276 guest rooms, a massive ballroom, high-end restaurants and an innovation incubator where students can launch start-up companies.
Early last month, the university received state permission to transfer three acres to the University of Maryland College Park Foundation and pursue the construction of the four-star, $115 million hotel across from the main university entrance at Route 1 and Paint Branch Parkway in northwestern Prince George’s County.
The years-long effort to transform the corridor will move a step closer to completion Wednesday when the College Park City Council reviews the proposal before it goes to the county for the planning board’s approval and permitting.
Prince George’s officials have given hints of strong support for the project, promising an expedited approval process. They say they expect to break ground on the project this winter for a fall 2016 opening.
Hillman, chief executive of Vienna-based Southern Management Corp., has negotiated a development agreement with the foundation and this week unveiled designs for the project, which he says will attract scholars and other university visitors as well as Washington-area tourists.
The proposed 12-story hotel has a distinctive glass facade edging Route 1, giving the area an urban feel that residents and community leaders say College Park lacks.
“It’s different. It’s glass. It’s modern. It is forward-looking,” U-Md. President Wallace D. Loh said.
The Hotel at University of Maryland is the first major project that the university is undertaking under an initiative that envisions College Park becoming one of the nation’s 20 greatest college towns. That vision foresees a safer, greener, transit-oriented community where professors and other university employees will want to live and raise their children. It also envisions a place that will appeal to visitors by offering improved dining and shopping options.
U-Md. attracts 80,000 to 90,000 visitors annually, but most — whether they are potential students, their parents, alumni or visiting professors — have a “very transactional” engagement with the campus, said Omar Blaik, founder and chief executive of U3 Advisors, a consulting firm for the university.
“They come for the meeting, and they leave,” Blaik said. “There is really no place to be able to engage a potential candidate because the environment around the campus is very much lacking.”
Hillman’s project promises to change that by delivering the largest and most luxurious hotel in the city and in northern Prince George’s. The 519,900-square-foot complex is planned to offer fine-dining options in an area that is served mostly by fast-food and chain restaurants and “a hotel that is of a much different caliber than everything else that exists in College Park,” said Blaik, whose work focuses on the revitalization of college towns.
Inside the main hotel entrance, Hillman plans a lobby and lounge with a large bar. Also on the first level are a cafe and a steak-and-seafood restaurant. The second floor will have two ballrooms, with space for up to 1,000 people.
A high-end spa is planned for the top floor, where there also are plans for a banquet terrace with breathtaking views of the university campus, said Hillman, whose company runs the three-year-old Hotel at Arundel Preserve in Hanover, Md.
The developer already has secured a lease with Bagels ’n Grinds, which will be the first-floor coffee shop, and plans call for a U-Md. memorabilia shop near the lobby. The developer also is in talks to bring in an Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa.
Southern Management is one of the largest privately owned residential property-management companies in the Baltimore-Washington area, where it owns and manages more than 25,000 apartments.
Hillman, who has done business in Prince George’s for more than four decades, said the project “is a chance to do something that highlights the county and spurs a lot of other developers to come into that area.”
“A lot of the people that work in the university don’t live in the area, and I think that with more services they will,” he said. He also said he expects the majority of guests will be university visitors but he also foresees the hotel as a top choice for elegant parties, including family reunions and weddings.
College Park officials say the city also sees an opportunity to capitalize on the thousands of people who visit the area on business at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the nearby NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and National Archives. Because of the limited options in College Park, visitors often choose accommodations in the District or Baltimore.
“There is definitely demand for a newer product,” said Michael Stiefvater, the city’s economic development coordinator. “It will be great for them to actually stay here and hopefully shop and eat here while they are in town. And, of course, there is also a hotel- motel tax, so that benefits the city.”
About a dozen small hotels and motels are within a quick drive from U-Md. Most are older structures. Two other small hotels are in the pipeline, including a TownePlace Suite with 75 guest rooms and a Courtyard Marriott with 156 guest rooms.
In the long run, university officials say the conference-center project is key to the school’s goals of attracting more faculty and staff to move into the city and to shift the student population from home rentals to student housing. It’s also part of the university’s greater economic development plan that includes the construction of a technology innovation center and more student housing.
“Twenty years from now, people will look back and say the revitalization of College Park and of Route 1 began with this hotel,” Loh said. “It is not going to happen overnight, but if we can just get this project, it will have a momentum of its own.”