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.