Across the street from the point where North Kansas Street intersects Fairfax Drive in Arlington can be found a giant empty hole in the earth where, decades before, a department store once stood.
Riding the rickety escalator and playing with the pet monkeys were familiar pastimes for those who stopped in to do their shopping in those long-ago times.
But over the coming three years, a new building – the product of a public-private partnership – is slated to fill that hole and keep rising toward the sky, heralding not just a new centerpiece of George Mason University’s Arlington campus, but a new way of connecting higher education with high tech.
Dubbed “Fuse at Mason Square,” the new project is the joint effort of the university and a development consortium that will include offices for Mason’s new School of Computing as well as the Institute for Digital Innovation plus private-sector space, totaling 345,000 square feet in all.
And as the Clark Construction signs on the fencing ringing the site attest, the planning phase has moved into the building phase.
“This is a really big day – it has been no small feat to get here,” said Carol Kissal, a senior vice president at Mason who is leading the university’s efforts on the project. Kissal and others spoke at a formal groundbreaking ceremony on April 6.
Her counterpart on the “private” side of the public-private partnership is James Martin, vice president and chief development officer of Edgemoor Infrastructure and Real Estate.
“We have built friendships, we have built trusts,” he said of the effort to formalize the relationship and then move forward.
Martin promised a facility where people could “intersect, collide and trade ideas,” a space that will “bring people together in ways we can’t even imagine today.”
The parcel in question fronts Fairfax Drive in the westernmost part of Mason’s Arlington campus, abutting the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. headquarters building. From the 1950s through the 1970s, it was occupied by a branch of the regional Kann’s Department Store.
Kann’s was an establishment James “Jimmy” Hazel knew well, as his grandparents lived right across the street. “That’s where my dad grew up,” he noted.
His father was the legendary developer John “Til” Hazel, who died last month at 91 and whose relationship with George Mason goes back to its beginnings, when he served as a member of its board of visitors.
Kann’s shuttered its Virginia Square outlet during the economic malaise of the 1970s, and Til Hazel later helped secure purchase of the parcel for an Arlington outpost of the young university. Its first occupant was the university’s nascent law school, leading to the famous – if perhaps apocryphal – comment from some students that they got both their shoes for the first day of kindergarten and their law degree in the same building.
Obtaining the Arlington land served as “a tremendous boost to Mason’s overall presence” in the region, said Jimmy Hazel, who earned a law degree at the university and today serves as Mason’s rector.
Ground-breaking ceremonies tend to bring out a parade of speakers, and the April 6 celebration, which drew about 250 people, was no exception.
Virginia’s new secretary of education, Aimee Rogstad Guidera (whose husband attended Mason’s law school in the 1990s), said the new Fuse facility would cement the university’s role as “leading the tech revolution here in Northern Virginia.”
“Virginia must be the best place to learn” so students are “prepared for success in life,” she said.
Arlington County Board Chairman Katie Cristol said the turnout for the groundbreaking ceremony (moved indoors because of threatening skies) underscored “the depths of Mason’s relationships” with the Arlington community.
The new facility, Cristol said, “is going to shape our futures in ways we can only imagine.”
The April 6 event came the same week as the 50th anniversary of state legislation, signed by then-Gov. Linwood Holton in 1972, formally severing what was then known as George Mason College from its parent institution, the University of Virginia. From that point forward, Mason – rechristened a full-fledged university to acknowledge the evolution – stood on its own two feet.
Up through the 1980s, the university’s efforts were concentrated on its main campus, adjacent to the city of Fairfax, but in recent decades there has been significant work done to augment campuses in Prince William and Arlington.
In addition to land on which the new Fuse building will rise, the Arlington campus includes the Antonin Scalia Law School, the Schar School of Policy and Government, the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution, programs in Arts Management and the School of Business, Mason Enterprise, and Continuing and Professional Education, as well as meeting and conference facilities.
A recently concluded “visioning” process on Mason’s physical facilities across Northern Virginia ended largely in agreement that the Arlington campus did not need more intense development than already in the works. But some tweaks were suggested, including better connectivity among buildings, better pedestrian crossings of Fairfax Drive and adding vibrancy to the large but often empty plaza that fronts Fairfax Drive.
Once construction hits its stride, upward of 300 workers will be on the site most days, aiming toward a completion date sometime by 2025.
“We’re going to have bumps. We’re going to have great days, we’re going to have tougher days,” Martin acknowledged.
Once up and running, “It will change the lives of our students, who will go out and change the world,” Kissal predicted.