“We don’t need 65 acres ourselves, but we need to be able to place partners near us as part of an ecosystem,” Virginia Tech President Tim Sands said. “This does give us elbow room.”
The campus, which was part of Virginia’s economic development pitch that lured Amazon to locate its second North American headquarters in Northern Virginia, plans to graduate about 1,500 master’s degree students and 250 doctoral students when completed. They will join about 60,000 Virginia Tech alumni who live in the Washington area. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The school will occupy about 15 acres between Four Mile Run and the movie theater, just east of Potomac Avenue against the Metrorail line. The remaining 50 acres, which contain the Potomac Yard shopping center, will be redeveloped into 7.5 million square feet of offices, multifamily housing, retail and hotel uses, said officials with Houston-based Lionstone Investments. The company manages the property in partnership with JBG Smith for its owner, an unidentified pension fund.
Sands and Lionstone, which has built mixed-use projects around universities elsewhere, said one of the advantages of the site is that they will be creating a new campus and community from “scratch,” with expensive roads, rail and bus systems in place.
“It will be a new urban place, a new almost-downtown for the area,” said Bailey Jones, a Lionstone vice president. “We have a ton of faith that Virginia Tech will do really well here.”
Graduate students, who will arrive in fall 2020, will initially be taught in one of the soon-to-be vacant, big-box retail sites in the shopping center, said Brandy Salmon, managing director of the Innovation Campus, while the academic building is being constructed over the next several years.
The site will initially house one academic building, with a second to be added; an incubator space for start-ups, research and development; offices for industry collaboration, and a parking garage. Public open space and ground-floor retail also is planned. The area is zoned for high-density mixed uses, but residents will be consulted through several public meetings starting soon, officials said.
The campus will be about a quarter-mile from the northwest entrance of the new Potomac Yard Metro station, which despite a $50 million investment from the state, may not have enough money to build a southwest entrance, according to a memo that City Manager Mark B. Jinks sent 10 days ago to a city working group.
The removal of that entrance last year during another fiscal crunch, prompted outrage from citizens and businesses located near it. The $50 million, announced in November, was supposed to solve that problem, but the cheapest construction option is now $75 million. The Potomac Yard Metrorail Implementation Work Group will assess the options at a Monday night meeting and make recommendations to the City Council this month.
The state is providing $250 million for the graduate school campus, which will be matched by Virginia Tech. Fundraising is expected to provide the rest of the money. The construction timetable depends on fundraising, but officials expect to start at the end of this year.
As a state educational institution, Blacksburg-based Virginia Tech does not pay property taxes on land it owns. But it will lease most of the space, said Stephanie Landrum, president and chief executive of Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, and its presence is expected to be “a catalyst” for development.
“The good news for Alexandria is, interest in this market has skyrocketed since the Amazon announcement,” she said, including for the Oakville Triangle property. “As a city, we evaluated this trade-off, allowing a small portion to go off the tax rolls in return for a long-term commitment. . . . Typically, we’re talking about 15-year leases. Here, we’re talking about someone who is going to build an economic engine that is committing to 100 years in our city.”
Other business leaders who have consulted on the campus agree.
The expansion of Virginia Tech in Northern Virginia will turn it into a “center of gravity for tech innovation” that can “get the flywheel spinning” to create a world-class tech hub here, said Glenn Youngkin, the co-chief executive of the Carlyle Group.
“Over the last 20 to 25 years, it’s been incredibly fragmented and because it’s been fragmented, that’s why Northern Virginia did not take its place in tech leadership,” Youngkin said. “Northern Virginia had its chance, but it didn’t happen. The ecosystem didn’t get kicked into play the way it did in Boston around MIT and Harvard.”
“The number one risk is to think small, not big,” Youngkin said. The school’s immediate need is to hire leaders and faculty of an international caliber who can build on the school’s core strengths in science and engineering, he added.
Sanju Bansal, founder of Hunch Analytics and co-founder of MicroStrategy, said in all the tech start-ups he has worked with, founders have to import most of their engineering talent, and even now, “we’re nowhere near the level of a Boston or Silicon Valley.”
“It would be nice to have a serious school of engineering and technology here,” he said. “It will have the effect of raising the tech fluency in the region. . . . We need to be a world thought leader that can kick out students who can build a product.”