Washington may lack certain basic rights under the U.S. Constitution. But on the local level, residents are more empowered than people in many states to do one thing: say no. This goes for bars and restaurants and would-be condos. And it goes for college dorms and science labs, too.
The 10-year campus plan process allows neighborhood groups to weigh in on universities’ operations—and District law mandates that their recommendations be given “great weight.” Every decade, American, Georgetown, University of the District of Columbia, George Washington, Howard University, Catholic University, and Gallaudet University all go through the procedure. There can be fireworks everywhere, but they’ve tended to be loudest around GWU, Georgetown, and AU, which are in the city’s most affluent neighborhoods.
Typically, campus plans get to the Zoning Commission under one of two circumstances: 1) Talks have either progressed enough that both the university and its neighbors are in agreement or need a little arbitration. 2) Talks have broken down to the point of intractability on both sides. Hearings are where the process starts to look less-than-pretty. With only a decennial opportunity to stick it to the neighboring academic Goliath, the system incentivizes neighbors to play up tales of woe and to make especially outlandish demands.
In the end, most of them get whittled down into a status quo that leaves no one especially happy.
In the case of Georgetown, the neighbors got an unexpected gift last fall from the city’s Office of Planning, which recommended in a report that the university cap its enrollment at 6,652 undergraduates and house 100 percent of them on campus by 2016. Georgetown says it doesn’t have room for more beds beyond the 5,000 or so it already has on campus. The university and its surrounding residents have also argued about parking (neighbors don’t want Georgetown types hogging street spaces), jobs (neighbors are wary of the school adding new employees who might hog said street spaces), and student behavior. This particular 10-year plan has been up for debate since 2009; the next hearing is in May.
Somewhat ironically, American University faced the opposite problem from Georgetown: It’s actually trying to build dorms—but, of course, running into community opposition. One dorm’s location was unsatisfactory; the school agreed to move it. Another set of dorms, which are slated for construction atop what is now an unattractive surface parking lot, apparently won an OK from the Zoning Commission only after a series of arguments about window decorations, the color of the stone in the buildings, and the number of trees to be located between the buildings and the street. (A resident of the adjacent Westover Place gated community expressed fears that students would look into neighbors’ bedrooms from their rooms, as if college kids with access to all the pleasures of a coed dorm would instead play Peeping Tom on well-heeled Washington adults).
Neighbors submitted hundreds of pages of testimony, blasting the university as having a “total lack of willingness to be forthcoming and to constructively engage with the community.” Neighbor Elizabeth Nottingham clinched her letter complaining that another proposal from American, to move its law school to Tenleytown from its current Massachusetts Avenue location, will create traffic and be terribly noisy (law students are known for being noisy!). She insisted, “In short it will be objectionable, and I object to it!”
The process continues.
Things were comparatively quiet during GWU’s bid for approval of its plan, which wrapped up about two years ago. The biggest issue then was the expansion of the Mount Vernon campus—the only place the school has left to grow. The university bought the Mount Vernon land in the late 1990s and, in its 2010 plan, sought to build out the campus with half a dozen new buildings. There was some arbitration over details like building size, but the plan was OKed in March of 2010. (Some GU neighbors will tell you that GWU won its plan so easily because it had steamrolled locals in previous decades.)
Ultimately, D.C. area campus plan fights are pretty typical of any District real estate battle: You can find almost as much hyperbole in the arguments over the Tenleytown Safeway, or the West End Library, or any other place where denser visions of city life bump into residents’ leafy ambitions. It also helps explain why so much of D.C.’s campus unpleasantness is located at AU and Georgetown, neighborhoods where people have more resources and simultaneously feel more put-upon by creeping density.
By the time the current rounds are over, the universities will probably get most of what they want. The dirty little secret of the process is that, for all the absurd demands and ill-will the process generates, the schools usually win more than they lose. It’s essentially a performance-based process. Both sides make a slew of requests, many of which they plan to abandon in order to get what they really want. Georgetown offers up garbage service, but really doesn’t want to play ball on housing everyone on campus. AU will redesign a dorm to fit a neighbor’s suburban-style image, but really wants to build the East Campus facilities.
But if the schools are always OK, all of the posturing doesn’t exactly yield good results for the city. In the case of AU—where, unlike nearly every campus on Earth, it’s bafflingly hard to find a sandwich shop on a neighborhood street—new development could leverage a degree of retail and transit that would actually benefit the entire city. But it’s unclear whether that will be the sort of stuff that the school has to give up in order to get its biggest projects through. Neighborhood ambitions, despite years of urban-planning sentiment to the contrary, seem focused on keeping campus buildings and retail hidden, rather than leveraging growth to get themselves some of the fun stuff that comes when your million-dollar grown-up house happens to sit near the residence halls of a bunch of young people.
Likewise, for all the alarms about traffic, neighbors made little noise about improving public transit as a condition of campus growth—or even saving the N8 bus route, which the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Agency axed last October. In the end, the AU campus plan conflict was a particularly Washingtonian kind of urban planning politics, more focused on saying no than anything else. Like so many other land use debates, it focuses less on what the District is—a big city that, among other things, has a lot of students in it—than on its most upscale residents’ various suburban fantasies about what sort of place they’d like it to be. No wonder campus politics are so acrimonious.