The four-star hotel with sleek gas fireplaces and modern chandeliers where Patrick Killion and his University of Maryland colleagues gathered for happy hour recently would hardly draw a second glance in much of the Washington region.
But Killion and his group were thrilled — and a bit amazed — because they were on College Park's Route 1, a strip of the Maryland suburbs better known for college bars and fast-food joints than a place where grown-ups can chat quietly over a glass of wine.
"One of the challenges of adult life at the University of Maryland is finding a place to go that feels like it's for you and not for students," said Killion, as the rest of his group nodded in agreement.
Killion and his colleagues are the very people whom university officials, Prince George's County leaders and developers are working to impress in a coordinated effort to spruce up the Route 1 corridor, creating a place where more professionals will want to eat out, shop, enjoy cultural events and live. University officials say they want more graduates, faculty and staff members to be able to live and start research-related businesses near campus, while local officials say they want to better tap into the area's potential to attract new jobs and make the city more livable.
At the glitzy, four-month-old Hotel at the University of Maryland, the happy-hour group remarked on the MilkBoy ArtHouse, a hip new restaurant and music venue down Route 1. Just beyond it, in Riverdale Park, luxury townhouses with rooftop decks are selling near a new Whole Foods.
"It seems promising when you look at where College Park is," Killion said. "There are a lot of cool things happening here."
The Route 1 (Baltimore Avenue) corridor has seen gradual new development over the past five to 10 years, but it has visibly accelerated recently. In addition to the Hotel's high-end restaurants and coming spa, new apartment high-rises with restaurants and ground-floor stores are dotting the landscape. Office buildings are under construction as part of the university's Discovery District business and research park, and another hotel is being built.
On the horizon are nearly 400 more apartments and 70,000 square feet of retail planned at the site of the closed Plato's Diner and a Quality Inn, two well-known businesses that sat along Route 1. North of the university's main entrance, a Lidl, the European grocery giant, is in the works, and a Vigilante Coffee shop is scheduled to open early this year.
Humming in the background is construction starting on the light-rail Purple Line, which will have five stations on or near the campus.
Many credit the rejuvenation to improved relations between a university that, until recently, viewed itself as an island and local governments that had not harnessed the full potential of 38,000 students and about 17,000 university-related jobs in their midst.
Ken Ulman, the university's chief strategy officer for economic development, counted 31 university-related projects under construction, about to break ground or recently completed. The university is courting new businesses, buying land near the campus edges and partnering with developers for additional projects.
"People are huge fans of the university, but they go and visit other college towns, and they come back and say, 'Why can't we do this?' " said Ulman, a former executive of neighboring Howard County. "We can no longer be a university in a bubble hidden behind the brick wall. We're part of the fabric of the surrounding community. Changing the way we think about that was really, really important."
Developers, meanwhile, see potential opportunities among millennials and downsizing empty-nesters seeking lower rents and home prices than in the District and more expensive suburbs. The Route 1 corridor, they say, has relatively affordable land near the College Park Metro station and coming Purple Line — a key selling point.
"It's become a lot buzzier in the past year," said Robert V. Gilbane Jr., vice president of the Gilbane Development Co. The Rhode Island-based firm is planning to break ground this summer on 440 apartments with ground-floor retail on a parking lot at the College Park Metro station.
"I think the wave [of new development] is continuing to build," Gilbane said, "and by no means close to cresting."
Route 1 is still dominated by fast-food restaurants and tired-looking strip malls, however. Even boosters say it will take years for the corridor to shed its auto-centric suburban sprawl and take on the more vibrant feel of a walkable college town.
But the redevelopment, observers say, follows two powerful trends: older inner suburbs nationwide are looking to public transit, walking and biking to reduce traffic congestion as they grow, and universities are investing in their surrounding communities to attract faculty and staff members.
Eric Olson, executive director of the College Park City-University Partnership, said university officials and local leaders are eyeing thriving college towns such as Chapel Hill, N.C.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; and Madison, Wis. Getting more University of Maryland faculty and staff to live near the campus will be key, he said.
David Iannucci, who also oversees economic development for Prince George's, noted that the county has pitched the area as part of its bid for Amazon's second headquarters.
"Ten years ago," Iannucci said, "that might have been a laughable notion."
Developers and local officials credit the closer town-gown relationship to the university's president, Wallace D. Loh, taking the helm in 2010. The university recently launched a Greater College Park effort to revitalize the Route 1 corridor, and this summer, it formed the Terrapin Development Co. to buy, develop and manage real estate. Loh also parted with his predecessor, C.D. Mote Jr., by championing state plans to run Purple Line trains through the campus.
Before Loh, local officials said, the university isolated itself.
"He recognized that to be a high-class university, it's critical the university be located in a high-class college town," said College Park Mayor Patrick Wojahn.
In an interview, Loh called the university's redevelopment efforts "very strategic and intentional." Upon taking the job, he said, he was troubled that only 3 percent of faculty and staff lived in College Park, meaning they would have increasingly long commutes as traffic continued to worsen. That number is now up to about 5 percent, with another 6 percent living nearby.
He said he also was struck by the number of young alumni, including those starting high-tech firms, taking their college educations and businesses to more livable cities.
"We're not doing this because we're in the real estate development business," Loh said. "We can't compete if our students, faculty and staff can't live in College Park."
Challenges remain. Loh said. "We're far from being where we want to be."
Route 1, a heavily congested five-lane road lined with driveways, is intimidating for pedestrians and cyclists. The state is scheduled to begin installing medians and tree-lined sidewalks on part of it this spring, but retrofitting the area with a grid of more walkable streets will take years.
Another big problem: Some local professionals say it will be hard to convince them to live near campus until the reputation of the county's public schools catches up with those in nearby Montgomery and Howard counties. Many families, they said, also want affordable single-family houses, not the luxury townhouses and apartments coming down the pike.
Mike Franklin, owner of the upscale Old Maryland Grill at the Hotel at the University of Maryland, said he needs customers who can live nearby — and not just in apartment buildings catering to college students.
"You have to have the residents to have the retail and restaurants be truly successful," Franklin said. "You can't survive if everyone who works in College Park goes home to somewhere else."