"The campus is basically inaccessible for people who don't have cars," says Dave Daddio, an urban planning student who founded the website Rethink College Park while he was an undergraduate at the university. "Their previous resistance was kind of shocking to anyone who sees it as important to have transit. But I've seen a 100 percent change of personality."

By contrast, the university has long sought to bring a combination of shops, restaurants, hotel rooms and graduate student housing to East Campus. Officials actually hoped that much of the project would be done by now, but the original developer, Foulger-Pratt/Argo Investment, pulled out in 2009 after the recession imperiled financing for the projected $700 million town center.

The university selected Cordish to pick up the reins last year, citing the Baltimore company's experience with building and operating combined residential and entertainment districts. Essentially, the university plans to hand the East Campus parcel to Cordish to develop and operate for at least 30 years. The developer would reap the financial profits while the university would receive the social benefits and get the buildings back eventually.

Cordish did not respond to questions about the project, but Brewer says negotiations with the developer are on track and that parts of the project's first phase — likely to include the hotel, graduate housing and some retail shops — could be standing in three years. Though the project was conceived with the expectation of light rail service, Brewer says that "even if something happens to the Purple Line, we will continue to build."

In addition to the hotel and the badly needed housing (the university has only 700 beds for its 11,000 graduate students), the development could include a grocery store, a movie theater, free-standing restaurants and a 500-seat music venue operated by the Birchmere, which runs a concert hall in Alexandria, Va.

Though many neighbors and elected officials welcome the East Campus plans, they sound less convinced that the development will spur rehabilitation along U.S. 1, the traditional heart of College Park.

The expected first phase would begin on an 8-acre parcel across U.S. 1 from the campus' main gate. The hotel would be closest to the road and a showy addition to the streetscape. But beyond that, the rest of the development would move away from U.S. 1.

Even university officials offer differing views of the project's ripple effects. "I do think these kinds of investments can be transformative for a region," Brewer says.

Loh, however, views the redevelopment of U.S. 1 as a far more complex and expensive proposition.

"Does it do a lot for Route 1? No it doesn't," he says of the East Campus plan. "But at this point, my feeling is let's go after the lower-hanging fruit."

childs.walker@baltsun.com