Roadside plan for Walter Reed.

As DC determines how to repurpose 68 acres of the former Walter Reed hospital campus, one thing seems clear: the new development will include at least one university. Citywide, universities are playing a greater role in the regional real estate scene, partnering with developers and moving beyond a “behind-the-gates” approach to education.

3 groups of developers presented plans for the campus last Thursday, and each integrated an institution of higher education in its plans: Forest City with Georgetown University, Hines-Urban Atlantic with George Washington University and MIT, and Roadside Development with GWU and Howard University.

For years, area universities have encouraged students and faculty to engage with the federal government and local communities, whether through internships, service-learning projects, law clinics, or mobile medical units. Lately, many institutions have taken it further by seeking new locations or by opening their existing campuses up to their surroundings.

Hemmed in, universities find creative ways to grow

Under the leadership of former president Stephen Trachtenberg, George Washington University began buying and developing property in Foggy Bottom to grow its campus and generate revenue to support its programs. The school recently built a $360 million mixed-use development on the site of a former hospital that has helped pay for a new engineering building.

The project, called the Avenue, also brought several neighborhood amenities to Foggy Bottom, including a Whole Foods, apartments, restaurants, and a bank. It’s made the neighborhood more walkable, and serves as a great example of transit-oriented development. 


The Avenue. Photo by Daquella manera on Flickr.


While George Washington has perfected the use of real estate acquisition for revenue, Georgetown University does it primarily out of a need for space. Georgetown’s main campus is a compact 103 acres and can’t expand due to agreements with DC and surrounding neighborhoods. The remaining parcels on campus available for new construction are fairly small.

To meet the demand for more graduate and professional programs, Georgetown has strong incentives to look across the District and the region. The school is poised to move its continuing education and many professional degree programs from sites on the main campus and in Clarendon to a new downtown campus near Mount Vernon Square.

University officials noted in a recent email to faculty and staff that Water Reed “has the potential to be a campus for innovation that could combine our institutional strengths with private sector, non-profit and other institutional entities, all focused on developing ideas and solutions for next generation global problem-solving.” 

Institutional benefits and community investment often align

While large projects like Walter Reed involve the acquisition of new land, universities with space to spare are also looking at ways to open their property to the community. Catholic University has partnered with Abdo Development to build Monroe Street Market, a development with retail and arts offerings in addition to apartments. The development will enliven the edges of CUA’s campus, improve the pedestrian experience, and provide connections between the university, Brookland’s nearby “downtown” on 12th Street NW, and the Red Line Metro station. 


Monroe Street Market. Photo by Bozzuto Group on Flickr.


Around the region, schools and developers are also working together to build more robust communities. For years, the University of Maryland has planned a development called East Campus that would tie the sprawling campus to downtown College Park with shops, housing and a music venue. In Montgomery County, developer Percontee is reaching out to universities and research institutions from around the world to locate at LifeSci Village, a proposed biotechnology center with housing, offices and a town center adjacent to the Food and Drug Administration’s headquarters.

These projects aren’t without risk, as Howard Town Center in Shaw demonstrates. In 2008, Howard University traded some undeveloped property in its real estate portfolio with the DC government to acquire the nearby vacant Bond Bread factory. They partnered with the Cohen Companies and Castle Rock Development to create a mixed-use development, which would generate revenue for the university while creating amenities for students and nearby residents.

Historic preservation issues and other concerns delayed the project several times, leading Howard to end their relationship with the developers, who have subsequently filed a lawsuit for $100 million in damages. For students and neighbors, the ongoing litigation means it will be several more years before they see improvements to this block. 

Expanding into new neighborhoods lets universities contribute to communities

As universities expand into new locations in the District and beyond, they can and should work to provide expanded educational and career opportunities for nearby residents. Many universities are already working to expand educational, training, and career opportunities for local residents, through their own programs or partnerships, or through larger initiatives like Raise DC, but all can do more. 

Mayor Gray’s Five-Year Economic Development Plan included higher education (with health care) as one of seven sectors that will drive economic development and jobs. An important part of that economic development strategy should involve helping to grow the skills and capabilities of residents who wish to fill those jobs: as educational institutions, universities can offer expertise and resources to help neighboring residents help themselves.

As local universities continue to grow, we can expect to see additional developer partnerships as schools pursue opportunities to strengthen their programs and their neighborhoods in the District and across the region.