The Altering Landscape

Derrek Niec-Williams (B.Arch. ’07), the executive director for campus planning, architecture and development, and Anthony Freeman, the senior real estate adviser to the president, have been with Howard University since 2015. Together, they have worked together to bring Howard University into the 21st century’s changing Washington, D.C. landscape—in line with President Wayne A. I. Frederick’s plans for Howard.

“Dr. Frederick believes that our brand can be further expanded into many of the neighborhoods in the District of Columbia,” Freeman said. “He is moving the University beyond its core.” Freeman described their role as “connecting the dots between ideation, opportunity and implementation.” The

pair must tackle the question, as Freeman explained, “How do you bring innovative community development strategies and techniques to a University where we’re basically building a city?”

Niec-Williams and Freeman are responsible for the implementation of multiple major changes the campus has seen over the last five years, including the Interdisciplinary Research Building, the two new residence halls—College Halls North and South—and the new cafeteria in the Mary M. Bethune Annex, a co-ed apartment-style living option on campus. These were part of the campus master plan that was crafted in 2012 as an outline of the University’s major real estate development plans.

The campus master plan, however, is “unimplementable” in its current state, Niec-Williams said, as it calls for more than a billion dollars of new construction without a way to fund it; the University is at the precipice of launching a new master planning process to be able to implement the plans they have for Howard University.

“I think part of the problem that me and Tony are here to solve at the University is to try and balance spending on new facilities with revenue and revenue streams from real estate development activities that would ultimately pay for the rehabilitation of our campus,” Niec-Williams said.

The Meridian Hill Hall ground lease was one of the first deals the two orchestrated, which was necessary after a fi re in 2014 burned out the majority of one of the floors. Along with the code issues that had been grandfathered because of the building’s age, the cost to repair and renovate the building would have been at a major loss to the University. Instead, they structured a long-term ground lease that allows the University to maintain ownership of the property so that when the University gets the property back at the end of the lease, it will have been updated to code and could be used as student or commercial housing. These kinds of deals will be a recurring theme for the University’s real-estate dealings.

“We want to retain ownership over almost all the land that we have, yet we want to realize optimal value for that real estate today because the market is hot now,” Niec-Williams said.

Another recurring theme for the University’s real estate developments is the furthering of the University’s educational mission through these deals, Niec-Williams said. All the University’s partners are required to hire Howard students as interns, and there are incentives to include Howard alumni in those projects as well. The University also exclusively looks at partners that have people of color in meaningful roles at the company who would actively participate in the process.

Like with Meridian Hill Hall, the University entered a long-term ground lease of Slowe and Carver residence halls. The conditions in those buildings were “defi nitely not in keeping with the brand and caliber of Howard University,” Niec-Williams said. The campus master plan called for the closure of the two halls upon the completion of College Hall North and College Hall South, bringing the younger and more “academically vulnerable students” closer to the main campus. With the long-term ground lease of those buildings, the developers still met the University’s mission-centric requirements as well as maintaining the namesakes of the buildings because they memorialize major contributors to African-American history.

The Howard Plaza Towers deal that Niec-Williams and Freeman negotiated was necessary for the building’s functionality. The buildings had been run for about 30 years during the fall and spring semesters as well as both summer sessions, leaving only about two weeks every year for minimal updates to the building, such as painting the walls. After decades of this, various infrastructural issues put the towers in a “serious state of disrepair,” Niec-Williams said.

“Obviously that wasn’t something that we could just put a Band-Aid on, that needed to be a full gut renovation and rehabilitation,” Niec-Williams added.

Through a $144 million concession agreement with Corvias Campus Living, of which $70 million went directly to renovations, which allows the University to maintain land ownership without the management responsibility, the Howard Plaza Towers opened to students in fall 2017 with a new look. The kitchen appliances in the apartment-style dorm rooms have been replaced and the spaces have new fi nishes. The buildings have been heavily amenitized by removing the first floor units in the west towers and adding computer labs, social and recreation lounges and even a classroom space.

“The idea was to create a living and learning environment for the upperclassmen that live there, and I think that we hit the mark,” Niec-Williams said. “It’s a really good story to be able to tell: coming in and really fixing a building that was plagued with just about every issue you could imagine, and doing so in record time and delivering that in time for the start of the fall semester.”

In addition to the past innovative deals that Niec-Williams and Freeman orchestrated, there are multiple plans for the University’s future in Washington D.C. For example, the University has been able to fund the Undergraduate Library project— which has been backlogged since 2012 from a lack of funding, the pair explained. The project will be a “complete reimagining of what a library is,” Niec-Williams said.

Today’s Howard University students are accessing their information digitally rather than through more traditional research methods, so the plan with the Undergraduate Library is to eliminate the books that are not unique to the identity of the University or the African Diaspora. The library will provide collaborative space for students to study in various settings—from silent to loud environments—and give students a place to meet and work together. Additionally, the library will provide climate-controlled storage for the Moorland-Spingarn collection to be housed at the lowest section of the library.

Plans for the Howard Center are less concrete, as congressional tax reform bills could potentially impact taxexempt financing for universities, but tentatively, the University will adaptively reuse the building that had been plagued with various issues because of its age. The retail aspect of the Howard Center, which includes the Starbucks and the University’s bookstore, would remain untouched. The administrative building above, however, which was a hotel and supper club at its inception in 1975, will return to its origins with a University club on the third and fourth floors that will serve as a conference space and hospitality center. The upper floors of the Howard Center will be converted into apartments that would be available for faculty, staff and students as well as University affi liates who have demonstrated a “dedication to the institutional mission,” Niec-Williams said.

On the corner of Sherman Avenue and Barry Place, just across from Howard Plaza Towers-West, the Barry Place development is also being built; it will be a mixed-use building with retail on the ground floor and multi-family apartments and townhome-style developments around it. Freeman explained that for this deal, the land developer donated $15 million in land to Howard. The University then leased back to the developer, adding to its asset base by allowing the University to own the land on which this building will stand.

“We wanted a quality project with all the mission-related initiatives that Derrick has talked about,” Freeman said. “We’re particularly excited about having access to workforce housing for faculty, staff and graduate students.”

With these innovative real estate strategies, Niec-Williams and Freeman are helping ensure that plans are in place to keep the campus properties in good condition for generations to come while the University is continuing to grow with the perpetually changing dynamics of the community surrounding it in a way that benefi ts the Howard University community at large.

“In addition to creating value for the University, we’re also focused on animating the campus,” Freeman said, “basically bringing a level of excitement and a sense of place to our campus to really deliver what our faculty, staff, students and stakeholders want, which is an exciting, vibrant campus.

“We really want the campus to be a great place to learn, live, work and play,” Freeman continued, “and with a lot of our initiatives over the next couple of years, you’ll see a fundamental metamorphosis of the campus and our properties around the campus.”

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