UM President Wallace Loh

UM President Wallace Loh (Baltimore Sun file photo / March 20, 2014)

The University of Maryland, College Park could look considerably different by 2020 if plans for a light rail line and a town center development on the east side of campus roll forward this year.

Preliminary engineering for the $1.93 billion Purple Line, expected to run through the heart of campus, could begin this fall if federal transit officials grant permission. The initial phase of the East Campus development, which would include a hotel, restaurants and retail shops, could also come up for approval by the Board of Regents if campus leaders can reach an agreement with the Baltimore-basedCordish Cos.

School officials say that, in tandem, the projects could make the campus more accessible to commuting professors and students from across the Washington suburbs and give it a more polished look commensurate with the flagship university's enhanced national standing.

"When I peer into the future," says first-year university President Wallace Loh, "the biggest challenge to our rise as a premier research university is not internal, it's the larger community we're a part of."

For all the advances the university has made over the past two decades, UM officials still worry about the shabby face they present to prospective students and faculty members. They speak wistfully of college towns such as Madison, Wis., and Chapel Hill, N.C., where strips of inviting shops and restaurants are a short walk from campus.

Visitors to College Park are greeted by traffic-choked U.S. 1, with its worn storefronts and lack of a discernible center. Students have to hop a bus to reach the train to downtown Washington, and most other entertainment options require a car trip. If the university holds a high-powered conference, attendees have to stay somewhere else.

In Loh's desired picture, students would jump on light-rail trains along Campus Drive and be at high-tech internships in Bethesda 20 minutes later. Residents from campus and the surrounding community would walk to buy clothes, hear music and watch movies on East Campus. Alumni and visiting researchers would sleep in plush rooms and dine in first-class restaurants at an on-campus hotel and conference center.

"College Park does not have a town center like most college towns do," he says. "So we need to build one to be a magnet."

Neighbors are eager for the changes as well, says Prince George's County Councilman Eric Olson, who represents College Park. "With any development, people want to see the details, but I think they want to see something positive there," he says of the 38-acre East Campus parcel. "I've heard year after year that we don't have the retail we should have in our community. The city and the university largely want similar things."

After years of tempestuous relations between university and civic leaders, Olson says town-gown interactions have entered a new age.

"The off-campus and on-campus relationship is probably closer than it ever has been in my time as an elected official," he says. "I think the residents see this as a great opportunity to address some of the things that the city has wanted to address."

Of the two projects, the Purple Line is far more outside the control of Loh and his administrators. It's a planned 16-mile rail line that would run from New Carrollton in Prince George's County to Bethesda in Montgomery County. The state will ask the federal government to foot half the bill for the line, which isn't expected to open until 2020, even if congressional approval of the funding goes smoothly.

For several years, the university's qualms about running a train down Campus Drive were a roadblock to Purple Line planning. Officials raised questions about the safety of thousands of pedestrians who cross the street daily and about the possible impact of electromagnetic emissions on sensitive lab equipment. They suggested that an underground line on the periphery of campus, though possibly more expensive, might be preferable.

But Maryland Transit Administration officials have allayed those concerns, says Frank Brewer, the university's interim vice president for administrative affairs.

Earlier this year, the Board of Regents voted to go along with whichever alignment affords the best chance of winning federal dollars. Loh says increased enthusiasm for the rail line is motivated by philosophical and practical concerns.

As part of its strategic plan, the university is committed to becoming a greener, less car-dependent campus. But there's also the daunting fact that a peak-hour commute to Bethesda, 14 miles away, is projected to take 90 minutes by 2020.

"There's no way we can retain faculty if that's the case," Loh says. "It's either massive gridlock or the Purple Line."

He says the rail line could be the most consequential thing to happen to the university in the next 30 years.

Regardless of the reason, longtime Purple Line advocates say they are thrilled that the university is fully on board.