The University of Maryland is aggressively acquiring real estate along Route 1 in College Park, pushing to create a lively main street that better connects its flagship campus with the town and provides an atmosphere on par with the school’s academics.
University officials, through a private foundation, have leased or acquired more than $20 million in commercial properties — including a shuttered local bar — and begun negotiating agreements with other landowners that could bring hundreds of apartments and a string of new restaurants and shops to College Park.
Both the university and the town have been sometimes criticized as so lacking in amenities that graduates often leave as soon as they are able. Only 3 percent of faculty live there.
Under the direction of university president Wallace D. Loh, the effort is being guided by Omar Blaik, a private consultant who played a key role in the University of Pennsylvania’s efforts revitalizing West Philadelphia, and Ken Ulman, the former Howard County executive who was hired as a contractor by his alma mater eight weeks ago following a failed campaign for lieutenant governor.
“I’ve always believed that the University of Maryland can and should be central to the economy of our state,” Ulman said. “And Dr. Loh said, then come create a town for our university.”
The plan to acquire and redevelop commercial properties to the university’s liking mirrors strategies by Penn and Yale universities and other urban schools looking to combat shortcomings — real or perceived — related to safety, transportation or entertainment.
It also represents a dramatic departure from the university’s plans for the area before Loh’s arrival in late 2010. Previously the school envisioned a 38-acre, $700 million town center project that would have created a commercial hub away from downtown College Park, further distinguishing the university from the city.
College Park Mayor Andrew M. Fellows said much of the university’s planning at the time was done behind closed doors until the last second, further stressing town-gown relations.
“We read about it in the newspaper. They didn’t tell us what they were going to do,” he said.
By the time the university completed its town center plan and began negotiations with one developer — and then another — real estate values dropped dramatically, and the plans were dashed.
As disheartening as it may have been, the town center’s collapse prevented the university from building something that might have appeared overly insular. Nearly five years later, urban living is in vogue and instead of building a more isolated enclave, the university is focused on helping to develop the city center it already has.