ANC 3F05 Commissioner
Two unusual things jump out at the southwest corner of the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and Van Ness Street NW: the soon-to-be-former headquarters of Intelsat and the CBRE leasing sign in front of it. The combination of the two offers an opportunity to improve our neighborhood and the reputation and activities of the University of the District of Columbia (UDC).
The District government would be wise to explore the possibility of supporting a high-tech location at this site – a counterpart to the plans to convert the St. Elizabeth’s campus in Ward 8 into a center of innovation and excellence. And the Intelsat site could serve as an important resource for UDC – and vice versa.
Most of us in the area know the basic facts of the Intelsat headquarters. The award-winning futuristic design created a building ahead of its time for efficiency and water usage. Intelsat will soon vacate the site. New York-based commercial real estate company 601W Companies bought it last year. And real estate firm CBRE has the contract to find tenants after 601W completes a $45 million-plus renovation.
What’s exciting about the CBRE sign facing Connecticut Avenue is this: 700,000 square feet of available space. This eye-popping number loudly declares the remarkable potential of the renovated building: to bring a new type of vitality to Forest Hills at the Van Ness commercial area, and to breathe new life into UDC.
If done well, it could even hearken back to an earlier “technology” presence in the area – the National Bureau of Standards headquarters, which once existed where UDC stands today.
The DC government has committed to diversifying our economy to lessen the dependence on the District’s primary industry: government. The mayor’s five-year economic strategy includes the following element: “To grow the most competitive technology presence on the East Coast.” In support of this initiative, it has pursued the St. Elizabeth’s East Campus rejuvenation and supported such IT-oriented endeavors as 1776, a downtown incubator for start-ups.
The Intelsat site provides a perfect opportunity to continue this trend. UDC stands right across the street, and the possibility of partnerships with several of the programs could serve as an attraction to students looking for careers beyond the Van Ness Campus and companies seeking enthusiastic, committed and young DC talent. The MBA program, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Departments of Communications and Mathematics and Statistics, and the College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability, and Environmental Sciences could be sources for a new generation of DC-based entrepreneurs.
The key to success would be finding a differentiator. Incubators and accelerators abound. The best possible model for success may be a firm in Silicon Valley called New Me. New Me specializes in supporting businesses led by under-represented minorities in the technology industry. It has partnered with DC-based iStrategyLabs in the past, and a similar firm based in our community could be the perfect focal point for an accelerator in the Intelsat building.
The DC area’s largest minority-owned businesses, such as Black Entertainment Television, Fort Myer Construction and RLJ Cos., could further strengthen UDC and the District by considering further investment into this concept.
So what needs to happen? Here is a possible set of early steps. First, 601W could make itself less of a mystery. The firm has been largely invisible, and CBRE has only recently begun to talk about plans for this important community location. Second, the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, working with the Council’s Committee on Economic Development, would need to take up the issue, perhaps partnering with the UDC MBA program to develop a strategy to find a partner. Third, the Deputy Mayor needs to identify grant funding, much like the two grants 1776 secured, to attract such a partner. These steps would at least lay the foundation for progress at the site.
Just think of the possibilities. Instead of headlines about UDC administration turmoil and conflicts regarding construction plans, our neighborhood university could produce technological advances and initial public offerings, all based at this neighborhood landmark.