Housing Complex

Some Neighbors vs. A Few Universities

'Tis the season for campus plans: Georgetown's will hit the Zoning Commission tonight (students are organizing buses to support it, while neighbors in opposition are arranging car pools), the University of the District of Columbia has its first hearing next month, American should come up soon after that. Howard is still formulating a detailed draft, and George Washington University has been working on amendments to a plan approved in 2007. All of that amounts to a lot of neighbors fretting about students invading their tree-lined streets.

Most of the universities have some group that resists their expansion, whether explicitly (like AU's Neighbors for a Livable Community) or in their capacities as citizens associations. Now, for the first time, activists from around the city are coming together to push the Wilson Building for laws that "protect communities" against "aggressive university growth."

The District-Wide Coalition of University Neighborhoods has a six-member organizing committee of people from the American, Georgetown, Howard, Catholic, and George Washington areas, and has so far been endorsed by the Foggy Bottom Association, Citizens Association of Georgetown, and Burleith Citizens Association. They plan to incorporate as a non-profit and advocate for stricter caps on enrollment, containing new student housing, and anything else that would keep "disruptive" students under wraps.

According to DCUN spokesman, Foggy Bottom Association president, and freelance political consultant Asher Corson–who is offering his services to the fledgling organization pro bono–the need for a unified approach stems from the fight over GW's plan back in 2007. Neighbors spent $30,000 litigating against their massive expansion plans, and had little to show for it.

"GW really got away like bandits. Literally getting everything they wanted from the city," Corson says. "All these other universities saw that. You're seeing conflict throughout the entire city, basically, because of these precedents that were set from GW."

Neighbors are underdogs, Corson says, because the Zoning Commission and Office of Planning haven't been terribly sympathetic to their concerns about traffic and crowding.

"I think it's really an example of the failure of D.C. government and its representatives, because you have a situation here where the agencies that determine how much a university can or can't expand have historically done very little to protect neighborhoods," he says. "So what that does is create an enormous amount of tension."

Besides Corson, the organizing committee includes Jacqueline Meers and Nan Wells of Spring Valley, Phillip Blair Jr. and Mary Pat Rowan of Brookland, Tony Norman of Howard University, Cynthia Pantazis of Georgetown. Not represented: Gallaudet and Trinity, which haven't had as contentious relations with their neighbors, and UDC.

I'm still gathering more context and history on the ecology of each neighborhood and its university. But a pattern has already become somewhat apparent: The fiercest fights crop up between wealthy institutions and wealthy residents. Georgetown and George Washington are the only universities in D.C. with endowments that top $1 billion, their expansion plans are also the most ambitious–and their neighborhoods have the most expensive real estate in the country. (Though its endowment is only about $340 million, AU also has rich neighbors, and its proposed new building program–at 892,000 square feet to Georgetown's 1.53 million–is substantial).

By contrast, Howard, Gallaudet, and Trinity have had less contentious relationships with their neighborhoods. Doing some research on this last year, I found a much more tolerant attitude towards students in the neighborhoods surrounding Howard. And it's not because Howard students don't party. It's because more of them shopping, eating, and spending time in the neighborhood enlivens an area that has a lot less money flowing through its streets.

"We’re looking for how can that draw students out from the campus into the community," said Sylvia Robinson, the lead organizer of the Georgia Avenue Community Development Task Force. "It feels odd to have thousands of people across the street that you never see, and you never interact with. That doesn’t feel right to me. Especially if it looks like it’s conscious. That’s a community that has people living in it. If they’re not in your neighborhood, then they’re creating a void in your neighborhood. And that takes work."

The point is: Not all neighborhoods view their universities as imperialistic forces bent on disturbing their peace. And those who are happy with the university presence in their neighborhood usually don't speak up about it. So far, this DCUN thing can't claim to represent anyone besides a few citizens associations. If someone were to poll the neighborhoods instead of just going to ANC meetings or listening to ad hoc organizations, what would they find? As we learned with the discussion around restaurants on Barracks Row, the reality of public sentiment could be quite different than how it appears.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    Neighbors are underdogs, Corson says, because the Zoning Commission and Office of Planning haven't been terribly sympathetic to their concerns about traffic and crowding.

    If those concerns are unsubstantiated, I was unaware that the various authorities were required to by sympathetic to anything but the facts.

  • http://marketurbanism.com Stephen Smith

    The irony of Georgetown neighbors bitching about traffic is that the primary reason anyone at Georgetown would keep a car is because they happen to rent a house in Burleith that comes with a space. And it comes with a space not because students love parking (in fact, I don't know anybody who chose a house because it had a parking space – it's basically luck of the draw), but because the neighbors wouldn't let anyone do anything with the space except use it for parking.

    ...and obviously the idea of increased traffic coming from more students at GW is too absurd to even bother rebutting.

  • Loves the Irony of it all

    There's not much consistency in the details.

    The Georgetown group is demanding the University build more housing on campus.

    AU is trying to build more housing on campus, but two "community" groups oppose them. One group wants the additional housing on the side of the campus farthest away from them. The other group, which borders the opposite side of the campus, wants the housing exactly where the other group doesn't.

    The reality here is that the NIMBY's are uniting. Some have strong cases. Others don't. But their dream world is to unite and not let anything happen. Anywhere.

  • Sally

    Sounds like Asher Corson's found something to do with his free time now that neither Cheh or Kwame need his services.

    DCUNT sounds like a winning organization.

  • Ward 1 Resident

    ANC meetings local organizations are the only forum citizens in this federal district have for voicing their concerns...how can you call neighborhood organizations "ad hoc" and still call yourself a DC reporter?

    Sounds to me like the person most concerned with the future of actual neighborhoods in this city is Asher Corson...

  • Ward 1 Resident

    ANC meetings and local organizations are the only forum citizens in this federal district have for voicing their concerns...how can you call neighborhood organizations "ad hoc" and still call yourself a DC reporter?

    Sounds to me like the person most concerned with the future of actual neighborhoods in this city is Asher Corson...

  • ThemFoksIsCrazy

    Neighborhood associations tend to be echo chambers. The members more or less talk only to one another. My experience has shown that they are often against new people coming into the groups, oppose any type of transparency and become enraged when questioned whether they represent the broader community.

    Of course, they can also make a lot of noise and threats -- with only a handful of people. But, your're right: ANCs should really stop fearing them and go out and talk to the actual people who live in an area.

  • Ward 1 Resident

    ...why don't the people that actually live in an area actually go to the area's meetings...and why don't the people who have issues with ANC run for ANC. Last year there were 184 seats on the Commissions that ran unopposed and 26 with no declared candidate by July. More like ThemFolksCare.

  • Sally

    Asher for At-Large!

  • Stuart Tyler

    Asher Corson strikes again. First class A-hole and second class douchebag. Does he even mention the fact that he went to GW and lived in an apartment paid for by Mum and Dad.

    Perhaps he also fails to mention his time working for CM Cheh and not so squeaky clean Chairman Brown.

    Asher, do us all a favor and go back to Chicago. Take Barbara Kahlow and Elizabeth Elliott with you. The three of you are a true Dream Team.

  • Lev

    So you're saying he's college educated, has DC government experience, and is a neighborhood activist before 30years old??? I agree w/ Sally...Asher for At-Large!

  • ADP

    I'd love to see AU build more on-campus housing. There's a new apartment building that opened last year on Wisconsin near Macomb, which apparently has become off-campus housing for more well-to-do AU students. The amazing thing is the number of student cars with out-of-state plates that somehow have DC residential parking permits that allow on-street parking! At a minimum, you should have to register your car in DC and pay fees and insure your car here to get RPP street parking.

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