Downtowns Are Full of Empty Buildings. Universities Are Moving In.

On a conspicuous corner of Pennsylvania Avenue, in a once gaudy building that used to house the Newseum, the 10-story, $650 million Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg Center has just opened in Washington. I’ll say straight off: It’s not architecture for the ages, but it’s an interesting, high-end model of an urban quad and a good example of how struggling downtowns are finding a glimmer of hope as satellite campuses.

In design jargon, the term is “adaptive reuse,” which is the same story as turning empty office towers into apartment buildings. Graduate students from Hopkins’s business school and its government and international studies programs, among others, now occupy the space where an old satellite and a news helicopter belonging to KXAS-TV in Texas used to dangle from the Newseum ceiling. David Rockwell and his Rockwell Group, the theater and hospitality specialists from New York, have converted the center’s atrium into a handsome, sunlit, wide-open complex of terraced classrooms and breakout spaces.

Universities like Hopkins are not the ultimate cure-all for what now ails downtowns across America, though, especially since they don’t pay property taxes like for-profit companies. Downtowns are still struggling. WeWork, which presently rents more office space than any other company in the United States, filed for bankruptcy this month. Attendance at theaters, museums and many cultural attractions is still down, post-pandemic.

That said, residents are coming back. When the Covid-19 crisis started, pundits were quick to note how many city dwellers, especially wealthier ones, were fleeing to the countryside, and suggested the move might be permanent. It turns out the reverse may be true: According to a new study, by Paul Levy and a team from Philadelphia’s Center City District, more residents now live in downtowns across America than did before Covid.

Here in Washington, residency is up by 114 percent compared with figures from early 2020, the study finds. It’s up in downtown San Francisco, too, and in downtown Portland, Seattle, Philadelphia, even in Midtown and Lower Manhattan.

The facade of the Newseum, which opened in 2008, with its huge tablet engraved with the First Amendment.Credit…Jeff Goldberg/Esto
For Johns Hopkins, the building was reclad in Tennessee marble and filled out with terraces.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

These numbers, I realize, come from just one study, by a downtown civic organization. But it shouldn’t really surprise anyone who has taken the New York City subway during midweek rush hour lately. Downtowns aren’t yet back to what they were, but their obituaries were clearly premature.

They’re morphing, as they’ve always done. I recall a conversation with a developer in the spring of 2020, just after Covid emptied the streets, which has stuck with me because developers, big ones anyway, deal in extended risk and have to take the long view. This developer’s properties had already suffered losses, and the forecasts back then were dire, but he was pretty matter-of-fact when he estimated we wouldn’t have a fair, useful picture of where cities really stood before mid-2025.

According to that timeline, we’re just more than halfway toward enlightenment.

So what seems knowable at this point?

The University of California, Los Angeles, recently bought a vacant office building in the city’s downtown. St. Francis College in New York signed a 30-year lease in an office tower above a Macy’s in Brooklyn. The University of Louisville in Kentucky was gifted an office building in downtown Louisville. And in San Francisco, there is all sorts of talk about schools possibly being the magic elixir that saves downtown from the urban doom loop.

Not that property taxes aren’t a big and contentious issue, especially when it comes to well-endowed universities, but campuses do bring other revenues to city coffers.

This move downtown by schools isn’t a new phenomenon, of course. In Hopkins’s case, the Baltimore-based research university already operated a satellite campus in D.C. Before the pandemic, the school had begun hunting for a more central location that could bring different graduate programs at Hopkins together under one roof, in the heart of the city.

An opportunity arose in 2019 when the Newseum decided to sell its building. Founded by the nonprofit Freedom Forum in 1997 in Rosslyn, Va., the Newseum moved to Pennsylvania Avenue in 2008, admirably aspiring to do for the Fourth Estate what the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space and Natural History museums, on the nearby Washington Mall, have done for Amelia Earhart, the Apollo moon missions and dinosaurs.

The interior of the Newseum had a news helicopter hanging from the ceiling.Credit…Jeff Goldberg/Esto
The center now has an interior of terraced breakout spaces, classrooms and bridges under an open skylight.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Designed by James Polshek (New Yorkers may know him best for the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History), the Newseum, from the street, was the architectural equivalent of a boldface newspaper headline. It featured the text of the First Amendment engraved on a four-story-high, 50-ton pink marble tablet affixed to its noisy steel-and-glass facade.

The interior, installed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, was also cacophonous: packed with galleries, theaters, interactive kiosks and artifacts. A giant wall of LED screens displayed newspaper clippings and videos.

Props to the Freedom Forum for compelling Washington politicians to pass a giant tablet featuring the First Amendment when they drove along Pennsylvania Avenue. The museum organized some excellent exhibitions and programs.

But the Newseum was not Polshek’s finest hour. In a neighborhood filled with exceptional civic architecture, the building looked all the more graceless beside Arthur Erickson’s monumental Canadian Embassy and across the street from John Russell Pope’s magisterial National Gallery of Art and I.M. Pei’s East Building.

At $477 million, the Newseum also cost far more than its initial budget and opened three years behind schedule into stiff economic headwinds. It charged visitors $25 for admission in a city where some of the world’s greatest museums are free.

After a little more than a decade, like too many of the newspapers it heralded, the Newseum had to shut its doors, and put its building up for sale, gifting the First Amendment tablet to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

With money from Michael R. Bloomberg, Hopkins’s biggest donor, the university was able to buy the building for $372 million, then poured another $275 million into its soup-to-nuts renovation.

The “Beach” at the center is full of corner booths and other seating.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

The new interior, overseen by the Rockwell Group, promotes communication up, down and across the atrium. Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Ennead, the firm founded by Polshek, who died last year, was hired to work with SmithGroup and redo the outside. Richard Olcott, the partner in charge, told me the other day that he had gotten marching orders from Hopkins to rebrand the building, architecturally. At the same time, he said, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which always has the last word on design in downtown Washington, told him “We needed to be a better neighbor.”

The new design partly wrapped the facade in woven bands of pink Tennessee marble — the marble matching the exterior of buildings nearby. A giant glassy indentation on the outside by Polshek that allowed views of the interior — he called it a “window on the world” — was filled in, adding thousands of new interior square feet for a library, a cafe, classrooms and terraces with views onto the Capitol.

Now, from the outside, the Hopkins center can conjure up an awkward fourth-grader in the front row of a class picture: well-behaved, anxious to fit in — still not quite at ease in its surroundings.

The building’s atrium was where more meaningful changes occurred. The Rockwell Group, teaming with Ennead, had to perform a kind of sleight of hand: turning a shoe box into an open, flexible, campuslike quad where students would hang out and want to communicate up, down and across the atrium.

Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Skylights were opened up, floors leveled, the wall of video screens removed. It’s useful, I think, that the Rockwell Group specializes in choreographing theatrical spaces. Bridges, now suspended from the center’s ceiling, crisscross the new atrium, where lounges spill like rice-paddy fields down from the upper floors. A tiered bleacher, like a mini amphitheater, is called “the Beach,” after a popular stretch of lawn on the university’s flagship campus in Baltimore. It provides everyone who uses it with the seating equivalent of coveted restaurant corner booths. An enormous quasi-treehouse of classrooms, its trunk a stairway, blooms at one end of the building.

Walnut paneling and loads of eclectic sofas and tables soften up some of the hard, corporate edges. A 375-seat theater, open to outsiders, will serve as a lecture and concert venue for music students at Hopkins’s Peabody Institute. A restaurant, with outdoor seating, is on the way, along with a public art gallery, both of which are also conceived to attract Washingtonians and various outsiders to the center, weaving the campus into the city.

When I visited the other day, students peered over the bridges, sunned on the terraces and filled breakout spaces, burrowing into library carrels whose new floor-to-ceiling windows look over Pope’s great dome and toward the Washington Mall.

The vibe was serious but chill. It was possible to imagine the center becoming a downtown hub when it fills out.

Pessimistic talk still clouds the future of American cities. As I said, post-Covid, cities are evolving.

Some of the changes ahead may not be so bad.

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