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Johns Hopkins University buys Newseum building to consolidate D.C. presence

Johns Hopkins University is acquiring the building that houses the Newseum in Washington, D.C., where it plans to consolidate its presence in the nation’s capital, provide more opportunities for students and better inform policymakers, officials announced Friday.

Hopkins is buying the building at 555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW for $372.5 million under an agreement with the Freedom Forum, which owns the Newseum. The university aims to broaden the practical impacts of its research and position itself to influence national and international decision-making from its new home.

The sale will bring about the eventual closure of the Newseum at its current location. Dedicated to increasing public understanding of the role of the free press, the decade-old museum has struggled to stay afloat financially. It will remain open through the end of the year, the Freedom Forum said in a statement.

Acquiring the Newseum building will allow Hopkins to consolidate its D.C. operations — currently spread across four buildings on Massachusetts Avenue — into one space. “Hopkins D.C.” will be anchored by the university’s School of Advanced International Studies. The district is also home to Hopkins programs including graduate courses in applied economics, government analytics, communication and global security, as well as support services for students.

Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels said Hopkins had been looking for several years for a single facility to house its D.C. operations.

“We have wanted to bring all of our activities together into one facility and also have increasingly wanted to be able to bring some of our programs and research activities that are currently in Baltimore and elsewhere to Washington,” Daniels said. “We are hoping that with this new facility we’ll be able to offer more opportunities for undergraduates to do, for instance, internships and policy-related seminars and other activities in Washington. This becomes a wonderful portal for us to bring undergraduate and graduate students who are currently in Baltimore to Washington for relatively discrete periods of time.”

While Hopkins officials say no programs currently housed in Baltimore are slated to relocate to D.C., the new building will provide a forum for new events, internships and other programming. Daniels pointed to Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health and its forthcoming Agora Institute, a center dedicated to addressing the challenges of divisive issues in liberal democracies, as examples of Baltimore-based programs that would benefit from the new D.C. location.

“While that will be rooted in Baltimore, we are fully confident that the kind of research and educational activities that are sponsored by Agora would be perfectly appropriate for us to bring to Washington,” Daniels said.

With close proximity to Congress and the White House, the new building also will create a venue for Hopkins researchers to more easily offer their expertise to lawmakers. The university also hopes the new center draws national and international attention from Washington back to Baltimore, a university spokeswoman said in an email.

“We’re excited about what this represents in terms of bringing the base of Johns Hopkins to Washington, and of course for Baltimore it’s important to emphasize that in no way does this distract or divert our commitment to the foundational role that we play in this city,” Daniels said.

Anirban Basu, chairman and CEO of Sage Policy Group, said he expects the development to strengthen Hopkins. Because the university already has a large footprint in the nation’s capital and internationally, Basu said he was not worried its D.C. expansion would siphon resources away from Baltimore.

But as Baltimore becomes an increasingly difficult place from which to operate and recruit top talent, he said local leaders should be vigilant to retain the institution’s presence. It’s possible Hopkins could see its D.C. location as a more attractive venue to house future programs, particularly under subsequent presidents, he said.

“A lot of Baltimore policymakers are taking Johns Hopkins’ presence and its support for this community for granted,” he said. “We need to start to take better care of our institutions in general — whether it’s the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra or Johns Hopkins or private businesses.”

The Newseum building is expected to undergo renovations as the programs are brought under one roof. Daniels said he expects construction to begin in the fall of 2020 and take about two years.

The building’s sale comes after the Freedom Forum spent 16 months reviewing its finances, including the Newseum’s “unsustainable operating costs,” to determine the best path forward, the organization said in a statement.

Jan Neuharth, chair and CEO of the Freedom Forum, said in a statement the organization will begin exploring options for a new home for the Newseum in the D.C. area. The museum plans to preserve its permanent collection of artifacts and newspapers, according to the statement, and its future also could include digital outreach, traveling exhibits and online programs.

The Newseum first opened in 1997 in Arlington, Va., before relocating in 2008 to the Penn Quarter facility, originally built for $450 million.

“This was a difficult decision, but it was the responsible one,” Neuharth said in a statement. “We remain committed to continuing our programs — in a financially sustainable way — to champion the five freedoms of the First Amendment and to increase public awareness about the importance of a free and fair press.”

Freedom Forum officials declined to be interviewed for this story.

Hopkins will fund the acquisition in part by the sale of its existing D.C. properties. The institution owns three of four buildings where it has a presence on Massachusetts Avenue and plans to sell them in the next few years, Daniels said.

University funds and philanthropic support, including a new gift from Hopkins alumnus and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, also will support the acquisition. Daniels declined to disclose how much Bloomberg will provide toward the project, but said he’s a “core component” of the financing for the new building.

Separately, Bloomberg announced a $1.8 billion gift to the university in November, marking the largest donation to any academic institution in U.S. history. Those funds will be put toward scholarships for low- and middle-income students, allowing the university to permanently offer need-blind admissions.

Meanwhile in Baltimore, Hopkins is seeking approval from the General Assembly for a private police force to patrol its Homewood campus, hospital campus in East Baltimore, the Peabody Institute in Mount Vernon and surrounding areas. Bloomberg on Tuesday told reporters he thought it was “ridiculous” that the institution didn’t have an armed police force.

smeehan@baltsun.com

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