The next time you plan to head to Tenleytown, Spring Valley, or American University Park, remember to remove any books from your backseat, or collegiate-looking stickers from your car.
Otherwise, if you park on the street, you may find a $75 ticket from American University’s campus police on your windshield.
The university prohibits any students, staff, faculty, visitors, or other “affiliates” from parking anywhere in American’s vicinity unless it’s a university lot—even if the car is in two-hour parking for less than two hours, or has a Zone 3 parking sticker. Which is to say, even if it’s otherwise 100 percent in compliance with every parking law or regulation on the District’s books.
And don’t bother asking the school to tell you exactly where its own parking regulations trump D.C. law. When Washington City Paper asked its campus public safety director, Michael McNair, to define what streets A.U. considers in its vicinity, McNair declined, calling the question “irrelevant.”
“We don’t disclose what areas are ticketed,” he says. “Quite frankly the rule speaks for itself. If they are conducting A.U. business, they must park on campus or take public transportation. Where we ticket for violation of this rule is again irrelevant.”
For American University, arousing the ire of its Ward 3 neighbors is a constant hazard—lest they or the local Advisory Neighborhood Commissions start to cause trouble for the university with city officials. And on the leafy roads surrounding the campus, one of the quickest ways to summon an angry crowd of neighbors to a community meeting is to disrupt their easy access to free parking near their homes. (In fact, the Zoning Commission ordered American to minimize parking disruption before approving its last campus expansion.) So the university has tried to keep its immediate area free of any on-street evidence that the school exists at all.
The problem with a policy that bans A.U. “affiliates” from parking legally in public parking spaces, of course, is that determining which cars are university “affiliates” is an imperfect science. Tenleytown’s neighborhood email list abounds with stories of campus police workers blanket-ticketing the area.
“I found the ticket issuer and asked why he had ticketed my car,” reads one typical message. “He said ‘Well, I can’t tell who’s a resident and who’s a student, so I ticket everyone.’ Sure enough, every single car in the vicinity of my house had a ticket on it.”
The official rules, as it happens, aren’t much more exact. “We look for evidence that the person is affiliated,” McNair says. That evidence ranges from books in the backseat to a university sticker, or out-of-state plates. (Which, obviously, carry their own restrictions when it comes to D.C. street parking.)
Those who are wrongly ticketed can appeal the decision. After proving to campus police they weren’t visiting American, they can have their tickets voided. (Ticket recipients who have no affiliation with American at all can either contact police to prove that—or, since the school has no enforcement powers, just ignore the tickets.)
McNair says the university uses a variety of tactics to enforce tickets—including doubling fees, booting vehicles, and referring non-payers to a collections agency.
“Of course if the person is not affiliated with A.U., the ticket is voided once we are notified of the non-affiliation,” he says.
However, for those who are affiliates of A.U.—even those with Zone 3 parking stickers—the process gets much murkier. “I’ve parked near the [Tenleytown] Metro, gone on the Metro and gotten a ticket,” says Hanna Kiskaddon, a university junior. She’s also been ticketed by A.U. when visiting her boyfriend (another A.U. student, who lives on 43rd Place NW) or running errands. So far, she’s gotten seven.
Those tickets aren’t even supposed to be written, because Kiskaddon wasn’t near campus on campus business, according to McNair’s explanation of the policy. But that doesn’t make it much easier to dodge them.
“Once I got up to a certain amount, I started getting warning tickets with no fees—I don’t know what that means,” Kiskaddon says. “When I talked to my mom—a traffic court lawyer—she suggested I put a note in my window next to the Zone 3 pass saying ‘This is a D.C.-issued pass that gives me unrestricted parking in areas for Zone 3.’”
The city, though,won’t help get residents out of trouble with the university. “If they’re writing something for the violation of a university regulation,” then there is no issue, says John Lisle, a spokesman for the D.C. Department of Transportation. “It sounds like the university is trying to be a good neighbor… and this is how they’ve chosen to enforce it.”
The policy doesn’t just impact students, either. Laura Beers, a professor at American, says she once parked under a two-hour parking sign to go check her mail, and found a ticket on her window 15 minutes later. “They have a sort of guilty-until-proven-innocent attitude,” she says. “They’ll ticket you and if you can produce evidence that they shouldn’t have ticketed you, they’ll rescind the ticket.”
Beers jokes she’ll just go to Starbucks every time she visits campus. “If I had a receipt from Starbucks and could produce the receipt, then A.U. would rescind the ticket,” she says.
American wasn’t the first school to impose a “Good Neighbor” parking policy. George Washington University imposed a similar policy after absorbing Mount Vernon College in 1999. G.W. students, faculty, staff, and vendors have to use on-campus parking when visiting the school’s campus off Foxhall Road.
But neighbors gripe that G.W.’s campus police don’t take a strong line on enforcing that policy. “They do enforce it occasionally,” says Ann Heuer, a nearby resident and an Advisory Neighborhood Commission for the Foxhall area. “But you don’t see it very often.”
Sometimes officials from the campus come out and tell professors they should move their cars, Heuer says. But that’s about it.
“We really don’t have that much of a parking issue [around Foxhall],” she says. “But it’s the principle of it—they’re not supposed to park on our streets.”
American was given a similar “Good Neighbor” directive in a 2005 Zoning Commission order, as part of the university’s last expansion. Georgetown’s local ANC encouraged Georgetown University to put similar rules in place at its last expansion plan hearing.
But while G.W. has taken to putting leaflets explaining the policy on suspiciously parked cars (with students referred to judicial affairs for repeated infractions, and staff and faculty members brought before their supervisors), American has taken to enforcing the rule with $75 fines. It also extends the prohibition to guests and visitors of the university, something the 2005 order encouraged, but never required.
Parking on campus, however, can be expensive—an annual parking pass for a student costs $964, while one for a full-time staff member costs $1,404. G.W. charges its faculty and staff at the Mount Vernon Campus $1,560.
Georgetown doesn’t provide student parking at all.
East of Rock Creek Park, prices are lower. The Catholic University of America charges an annual fee of $415 for surface parking (and $500 for garage parking), with that price decreasing as the academic year progresses. Howard University charges its students an annual fee of $240, and its faculty and staff $300 for a non-reserved space. (A reserved space bumps the price up to $400.)
Many A.U. students say their price is way too high—especially if, as far as the District is concerned, they’re legally allowed to park on the street.
“It’s atrocious,” says Julia Imbriaco, a senior at American (and a Zone 3 permit holder). “It costs way more than a student could ever pay.”
But many of the school’s neighbors in Ward 3 say they’d like to see more enforcement of the policy, not less.
Judith Berson, who lives immediately next to American’s campus, in Westover Place, says campus police need to issue more tickets.
“They do not enforce the policy,” she says. “Our guests don’t have places to park… it becomes the neighbors’ responsibility to bring it up to the university.”
Berson says she and her neighbors have taken their own steps to enforce the parking ban—Westover Place restricts parking to residents of the condos in the complex. “We hired a daytime guard in order to keep our spaces safe,” she says.
After all, Berson says, she’s entitled to her space.
“If you buy a townhouse, you get a parking space,” she says. “Unless someone takes it.”