Virginia Tech breaks ground on Innovation Campus

Virginia Tech breaks ground on Innovation Campus
State, city and Virginia Tech leaders were present on Sept. 14 for the groundbreaking of Virginia Tech's first academic building in Potomac Yard. (Photo/Virginia Tech)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

Virginia Tech broke ground on the first of three academic buildings for its Innovation Campus in North Potomac Yard on Sept. 14. Although the groundbreaking was mostly symbolic, Virginia Tech representatives and city officials said it heralds things to come in the city’s Innovation District.

The 300,000 square-foot structure will be one of three academic buildings on the 3.5-acre campus, which will provide engineering and computer science graduate students with space to embark on projects in collaboration with corporate partners that will sponsor the projects.

“We’re excited to grow this campus. We’re excited to begin the process of addressing what we believe is an important need in the region for tech talent,” Lance Collins, vice president and executive director of Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus, said. “[The groundbreaking] was nothing but a thrill from my perspective.”

The building itself, with its modern, light covered style, will be built on the same sustainable, technology-driven principles that will drive the campus as a whole. While the design is dazzling to look at, Collins said it is far more functional than it might first seem.

“Integrated throughout a portion of the windows are photovoltaic cells that will be generating electricity that will be used within the building. Those facets were really an optimization of the electricity that will be produced with the solar energy,” Collins said.

Inside, the building is designed around fostering collaboration between students, faculty and corporate partners with open spaces and state-of-the-art labs and classrooms. The other two academic buildings have yet to be designed, but Collins said the phased development of the campus allows Virginia Tech to stay ahead of the technological curve.

The design of the first Virginia Tech Innovation Campus includes solarvoltaic cells in the windows to capture solar energy that is used for electricity in the building. (Rendering/Virginia Tech)

“Technology is a thing that is moving at faster and faster paces – it’s accelerating – so asking the question, ‘What’s the ideal building?’ six to seven years from now is very different from asking that question today,” Collins said. “We’re not going to be overly prescriptive. It’s going to be a beautiful campus – that’s one thing we know because that’s a responsibility we have – but we don’t know the specifics.”

According to Collins, the design of the first building changed slightly due to the pandemic, but the building, which is scheduled for completion in 2024, faced no significant pandemic-caused delays. On the other hand, the pandemic did impact the enrollment of graduate students during the campus’ first two semesters.

The first class of graduate students began classes remotely during the 2020- 2021 school year, but as of fall 2021, students are in person at Virginia Tech’s Northern Virginia Center in Falls Church. The fall 2021 cohort is more than 190 students, almost double the number of students enrolled in fall 2020. Collins said he expects growth to continue steadily over the next few years.

The groundbreaking last week is also a boon for Stephanie Landrum, the president and CEO of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership. AEDP has been working to secure corporate and business partners for the adjacent buildings on the campus, and with dirt finally moving on the project, Landrum said the future of Potomac Yard is now a reality for a lot of previously hesitant investors.

“It’s very different when you can show them a picture of ground with dirt moving. … It is a big step for Virginia Tech and the building, but it also, I think, a big step for our larger recruitment efforts,” Landrum said.

The Innovation Campus found its first foundational corporate partner earlier this year – Boeing made a $50 million, multi-year investment in the campus – and Landrum hopes to continue that trend. AEDP’s ultimate goal is to find businesses interested in signing leases in the additional office space that is being built as part of the Innovation Campus and larger Innovation District. Those businesses not only need to fit Virginia Tech’s idea of promising corporate partners but must fit the need of what Alexandria is building in this part of the city.

Landrum said AEDP is looking at the degree programs offered at the Innovation Campus and the job titles those graduates will pursue to identify companies that are in need of that talent. AEDP will then narrow that list of companies even further by determining which are the best fit for Alexandria.

“We’re trying to create net new jobs in the entire region, so part of our strategy is saying, ‘West coast companies, you’re having trouble hiring for these 10 positions. Here are 750 graduates who are going to be coming out of this program. Would you consider a site here in Northern Virginia?’” Landrum said.

Part of what has helped AEDP sell the idea to businesses is the level of support from the surrounding community, which had input into the small area plan that was adopted by the city.

“For Amazon and Virginia Tech one of the things that was very reassuring to them in making their choice was they’re not coming into a community where there’s the opposition because this is what the community wants,” Landrum said. “The same is true now as we’re talking to other companies.”

The Innovation Campus is a massive undertaking for Virginia Tech, but the project, along with the still-under-construction Potomac Yard Metro Station, also represents a significant evolution for the surrounding neighborhood. Collins said he hopes that the Innovation Campus will be an integral part of the Potomac Yard community. The first academic building is already designed with community engagement in mind.

“It’s the kind of thing where if you’re walking with children, you might want to stop in and see what’s the latest, see what’s going on,” Collins said. “There will be demos on the first floor, a visitor center, opportunities to put on virtual glasses. … We’re really excited about exciting young people about technology, thinking about careers in this space maybe down the road.”

All of that change comes with tradeoffs, like the constant noise and disruption from construction of the Potomac Yard Metro, which had its opening delayed from April 2022 to fall 2022. Landrum, a Potomac Yard resident herself, said those drawbacks are worth it in the long run.

“Certainly, people complain sometimes about that stuff, but, in general, my neighbors and people that I talk to are like, ‘This is a short-term pain for a longterm gain, which is a walkable, mixed-use community,’” Landrum said.