College attempts to close land sale

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April 21, 2009

3:36 AM

Real estate developer S.J. Collins has announced plans to build a mixed-use “lifestyle center” on 43 acres of land owned by the College of William and Mary and Real Estate Foundation in Newport News Va. The property, located near the center of the city, is valued at around $20 million.

Representatives from S.J. Collins addressed a select crowd of College alumni, including College President Taylor Reveley, Monday night. The firm presented a plan for extensive construction that would include upscale apartments, retail outlets and family restaurants. According to S.J. Collins’ partner Jeff Garrison, over 1.6 million people live within 60 minutes of Newport News, providing a substantial market for retail development.

The plot in Newport News has been empty and in disuse since it was acquired by the College from the state of Virginia in 1989.

President Reveley described the College’s sale of the land as wholly beneficial for both the College and Newport News.

“We wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be passionately interested in this project if we didn’t think it would be good for Newport News,” Reveley said. “We aren’t trying to push onto Newport News something that wouldn’t be good for the city.”

The College stands to benefit financially from the sale. The money from the Newport News property would fund future projects on land closer to the College.

“We haven’t got two nickels to rub together,” Reveley said. “We need the money to fund the Real Estate Foundation.”

The Real Estate Foundation, which was established in 2006 “to acquire, hold, manage, sell, lease and participate in the development of real estate properties in support of the educational goals of the College of William and Mary in Virginia,” owns property on the periphery of the campus, including land around the Wawa convenience store on Richmond Rd.

One of the foundation’s current projects is the development of “student-friendly retail” and student housing on land near Wawa.

According to Nancy Buchanan, the executive director of the William and Mary Real Estate Foundation, if the foundation succeeds in selling the 43 acres in Newport News, the proceeds from that sale will provide the majority of the funding for this construction.

“Obviously, we’re hoping that it will be enough money so that we can do additional projects as well,” Buchanan said.

Though nothing has been finalized, the Real Estate Foundation has ideas of how it would develop its property on Richmond Rd.

“We’ve done several surveys of the students to find out what they want, and they told us,” Buchanan said.

Aside from apartments, the foundation would solicit retailers to open outlets on the land — “maybe a 24 hour diner, maybe a Chipotle,” according to Buchanan.

“We will definitely be leasing to companies that will primarily cater to students. That’s the whole reason behind this,” she added.

However, any development of the foundation’s Richmond Rd. property is hypothetical until the property in Newport News is sold.

The City of Newport News has presented a number of obstacles to the development of the land.

“We are constantly frustrated by the difficulty of jumping through a variety of hoops in Newport News that seem to be breeding like rabbits,” Reveley said.

The developer must petition the Newport News City Council to rezone the land before the sale can proceed.

“As far as I know, [the developer] hasn’t submitted [a zoning application] yet, but they hope to submit it soon,” Buchanan said.

Should the sale fail to go through, the Real Estate Foundation has no other plans for the land. “There’s no alternative at this point,” Buchanan said.

Newport News senior district planner Saul Gleiser said that any petition for rezoning is unlikely to succeed.

The city’s “master plan” was updated last year.

“It was a five-year process that involved citizen input, and the citizens were very clear that they didn’t want anything else but research and development on that site,” he said. “The citizens did not see the need for more retail or apartments in that particular area.”

Buchanan expressed optimism, however, that the sale would succeed.

“We think that once we tell the alumni and the college what we’re trying to do, they’ll rally behind us and help to convince Newport News that it is a good project,” Buchanan said.

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