Housing Complex

Does Georgetown Just Have an Attitude Problem?

On February 9, the Zoning Commission will rule on where, how, and how much Georgetown University will be able to grow over the next ten years. It's been an arduous process, with citizens groups squaring off against University officials for well over a year now, and enough filings to make the Encyclopedia Britannica look like pulp fiction.

Through all of it, though D.C. has an interest in keeping Georgetown's operations local, the city hasn't been much of an ally. Most problematically for Georgetown, the Office of Planning requested that it be required to house 100 percent of its undergraduate population by 2016, which by then will be capped at 6,652 traditional students. The university currently has 5,053 beds on campus, so that's a lot of housing to build over the next ten years.

Why did the city take such a hard line? Councilmember Tommy Wells, in speaking to a student group Monday night, had one theory:

I asked the person who’s head of the Office of Planning, why did you say Georgetown needs to do this—this isn’t realistic, no other universities are being asked to do this in terms of the number of students to be housed on campus and she essentially said, we just don’t like their attitude. And I said, well you don’t get to have that opinion, this is about planning. You can’t change based on attitude.

Did Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning really say that? 

Not in so many words, she tells me. But overall, Georgetown's approach does add up to something of an attitude problem: In response to neighborhood concerns about more students living in off-campus rentals, "they've essentially said, they're Georgetown University and the benefits of their presence are obvious," Tregoning says.

The way the zoning regulations read now, it's the neighbors who determine what is and isn't allowed. "They have to demonstrate that they're not doing something that is objectionable to neighboring property owners," Tregoning said. "It's their burden to show that they met the requirement, and in our opinion they had failed to meet the requirement." *

I've been sympathetic to the university because even when it did attempt to build off-campus housing—even for less-rowdy graduate students—the neighbors objected, and the plan got killed. Neighbors even proposed limiting the amount of property Georgetown could own in the 20007 zip code, so the university couldn't own more student housing if it wanted to. That makes the new housing requirement difficult: Columbia University in Manhattan, for example, can house 100 percent of undergraduates because it owns large apartment buildings in Morningside Heights, as well as 20-story dorms on campus.

But Tregoning thinks Georgetown could house more students within its walls too, if it tried hard enough. "When you're thinking about doing your 10-year campus plan, those are the things that you would want to tee up ahead of time," she says.

On the one hand, I think students should be allowed to live wherever they can afford to live—they're people too. And it's understandable for the university to want to preserve on-campus space for academic and research buildings, which are harder to locate in surrounding neighborhoods. On the other, it's fair to encourage Georgetown to more densely populate its own campus, just as D.C. is asking of developments around the city, and the university might magically come up with more space where before it seemed like too much trouble to build.

To help Georgetown along, though, they ought to be allowed to build taller dorms than might otherwise be allowed—there's unlimited space in the sky.

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* CORRECTION, 10:43 p.m. - Revised to reflect the fact that Georgetown has, in fact, stayed under its 2000 enrollment cap of 6,016 undergraduate students.

  • DC Guy

    DC needs to streamline and make consistent how it treats its universities. It also needs to understand the overall benefits that having universities within the District borders benefits the city - from an economic and cultural standpoint.

  • @DC guy

    Communities are zoned for different densities, structures, etc.. To attempt to say that GU should be treated the same as GWU is apples and oranges. GU's campus is surrounded by the R-3 zoned communities of Georgetown and Burleith primarily. GWU is surrounded by R-5 and much more heavily commercially-zoned areas. These communities are completely different in character. As far as building taller buildings on GU campus, it is not necessary. Harriet Tregoning is absolutely correct. If GU wants to expand into some science and research fields, there are many areas in SW, NE and SE DC that would love to have GU build a satellite campus. GU has a huge ego (we have the President speak at our campus! whoo hoo!), and they simply do not recognize how much this is hurting them in the City. GU's goal all along has been to stiff its surrounding R-3 communities into becoming essentially one large off-campus dormitory, in order for GU's own business gain and other self-interest. Fortunately, the OP is absolutely aware of what GU is doing, and they are simply calling them on it.

  • RT

    This is one instance where I disagree with Harriet. Georgetown is being treated unfairly because Georgetown residents are powerful assholes who despise the University despite knowingly living in its midst. (And no, I have no affiliation with the university. Whether they have an ego doesn't matter to me- it's more of a basic economic development vs. rich entitled NIMBY question to me).

  • Trinidader

    Georgetown has bent over backwards to accommodate the community and they still complain. If anything, alumni like myself wish Georgetown had even more of an attitude and stood up against these neighbors.

  • danmac

    Georgetown residents have been given too much power no other community gets to pull the crap they do particularly with the Anc redistricting . Wells is right Tregonning doesn't get to mistreat any institution or person based on her opinion of their attitude. The university should sue the OP

  • Hank Chinaski

    "...enough filings to make the Encyclopedia Britannica look like pulp fiction."

    Your use of "pulp fiction." I do not think it means what you think it means.

  • Dizzy

    Lydia, do you have a citation for that "Georgetown didn't have much credibility with the neighbors to begin with, having exceeded the enrollment caps in its last campus plan" claim?

  • JustMe

    The confirms my "DC is a small southern town" theory. Harriet is annoying that the town elders haven't been shown sufficient deference by the flashy, "getting too big for his bridges" local university, so she's going to put him back in his place until he learns respect.

  • Dizzy

    As to the rest, a couple of issues.

    1. You say "...its undergraduate population by 2016, which by then will be capped at 6,652 traditional students. The university currently has 5,053 beds on campus, so that's a lot of housing to build over the next ten years."

    Under the new methodology the University is using to tabulate headcount in the 2010 campus plan, "All undergraduate students enrolled in the traditional undergraduate programs — regardless of their status as full-time or part-time — will be included in the Traditional Undergraduate Program Headcount. The count will also include previously excluded categories (i.e. veterans, commuters, and students over 25). We also will count students studying abroad, even during the semester(s) in which they are away from campus."

    In other words, even though the headcount will be one number, the number of beds for which there is actually demand will be less, since the students belonging to those groups (veterans, commuters, students over 25, and - obviously - those studying abroad) will not be seeking on-campus housing. OP's proposal to match beds to that number is therefore illogical.

    2. "In response to neighborhood concerns about more students living in off-campus rentals, "they've essentially said, they're Georgetown University and the benefits of their presence are obvious," Tregoning says."

    You've followed this process quite a bit. Would you describe Tregoning's statement as an accurate characterization of what University representatives have said? Playing up the positive contributions and externalities of the University is obviously part of it, as well it should be. But Tregoning implies that that has been "essentially" the entire message with regard to the entire campus plan process. That is ludicrous.

    3. "On the one hand, I think students should be allowed to live wherever they can afford to live—they're people too. And it's understandable for the university to want to preserve on-campus space for academic and research buildings, which are harder to locate in surrounding neighborhoods. On the other, it's fair to encourage Georgetown to more densely populate its own campus, just as D.C. is asking of developments around the city, and the university might magically come up with more space where before it seemed like too much trouble to build.

    To help Georgetown along, though, they ought to be allowed to build taller dorms than might otherwise be allowed—there's unlimited space in the sky."

    Your "unlimited space in the sky" prescription is obviously unrealistic, considering that the neighbors have long strenuously objected to any sort of vertical development on campus that might be seen from the neighborhood (or even that can't be seen, like the lights over the football field). The proposal for a taller chimney/smokestack (which EPA analysis said would not have any environmental impact on the surrounding areas) - torpedoed. The proposal for a roof over Kehoe Field on top of Yates Field House - torpedoed. Any increase in height that is visible from the surroundings is a non-starter.

    The question isn't whether the University can "magically come up with more space where before it seemed like too much trouble to build" - the question is whether the city should force the university to build housing for 100% of undergraduates and therefore dictate to the university what its institutional and building priorities should be. Given that Georgetown houses more of its undergrads on campus than any other DC university other than special needs-focused Gallaudet, I think the answer is no.

  • Mark Lance

    What possible right do the residents of this neighborhood have to determine where students live? Why does no one ever mention the fact that this university has been around since 1789, whereas the neighborhood in its current form dates to the 1960s. If you move near a university, you can expect to live near students. It is beyond arrogance to expect to lock away the students, denying them the rights of any citizen, because you want to turn a part of the city into a gated community for old money.

    This current plan, the neighborhood has moved to new levels of cynicism in it's effort to extort the university into restricting the rights of students. Now there is a cap on the total number of graduate students who can be enrolled at GU. Now of course graduate students are not a problem for residents. They aren't even what the neighborhood cares about. And the idea that the cap applies to enrollments, regardless of where a student lives - someone registered for 1 credit of thesis research while living in Ohio would count towards the cap - is absurd from any point of view. But this was pushed through by the wealthy Georgetown Lawyers as a way to punish the university for not supporting the gated community model.

    It is perfectly obvious that the university is an enormous benefit to the city. Georgetown contributes to this city in far more ways than are noticed by most folks - for example the hundreds of GU students who tutor in the public schools at no cost to the city. There is no valid reason for restricting its growth.

  • RT

    I think there is also an issue on fairly over discrimination against students. I don't know if this is technically a protected class, but it certainly should be when the discrimination is so overt, based on someone's status. AU's compus plans shows this form of discrimination even more clearly, with no one willing to call it out. Shame on the neighbors and the city for allowing overt discrimination against students. A good discrimination test: insert the word "black people" in place of students in many of their screeds, and see how horrific it seems.

  • too funny

    "....this university has been around since 1789, whereas the neighborhood in its current form dates to the 1960s."

    ha ha ha..... funniest statement of the day.

  • Bob Palmer

    GU did *not* exceed its enrollment caps under the last plan, never not once. Many inaccurate numbers in circulation.

  • Lydia DePillis

    @Dizzy

    Thankyou for pointing out the enrollment cap issue. I was looking at OP's report, which used a few different criteria for headcounts, and didn't pin down the actual numbers. I've made a correction based on Georgetown's own fact sheet.

    Regarding the other stuff: Have you seen a number for full-time, non-commuter undergraduate students with whom the University would have to provide with a bed under OP's requirement? I can't find it.

    On #2: You're right, a university's benefit to a neighborhood is a valid part of the argument, but it's not one that's likely to get them far with residents who only see the negatives. The more honest argument would be that students have the right to live where they want, neighborhood property values and Friday night decibel levels be damned, but that's not exactly a winner either. So perhaps the university comes off as arrogant, because the very legitimate cases they could make are somewhat impolitic.

    #3: I didn't say neighbors would like it if the university built higher than what exists already. I said that if the city was going to require Georgetown to build more housing on campus, it should also give it the right to build more vertically--just the same as a density bonus for other things the city requires of developers, like a certain percentage of affordable units. The city dictates institutional building priorities all the time, to balance an institution's self interest against that of the city as a whole. For example, in Tenleytown, the Office of Planning opposed Safeway's plans for a new single-use store, saying that a mixed-use building would make better use of the nearby Metro stop. So Safeway came back with a plan that looks much better. In this case, the Office of Planning has made the determination that it knows Georgetown's capacity for more housing construction better than Georgetown itself is willing to admit. At the moment, I don't really have the expertise to determine who's right.

    The biggest takeaway for me, here, is whether the "objectionable" standard makes any sense at all, because what makes something objectionable is the fact that someone's objecting, which will almost always be the case. The rights of someone who lives in their house shouldn't trump those of a landlord who wants to rent out the property next door, or of the students who want to live there. The question of what's good urban planning--one principle of which is densely-populated campuses--is different from who screams loudest.

  • Dizzy

    Lydia,

    Thanks very much for your response.

    On the first point, OP doesn't specify an actual number, just 100%. The Zoning Commission is who determines what the number will be.

    I think you're on the right track with number 2: there's really no way to be 'sensitive to neighborhood concerns' in the way that said neighbors perceive that doesn't involve throwing students under the bus and effectively saying "yes, they're noisy beasts and we'll try to keep them away from your clean, wholesome homes as much as we can." Mark Lance (Professor Lance, I presume?) is right: it is a gated community mind-set, and refusing to accept that frame is perceived as a lack of respect for neighbors' 'standing.'

    On number 3, I'll first say that in part I have a more general critique of your blog, which is that you rarely differentiate (either explicitly or implicitly) between Solutions That Would Be Implemented by Supreme Dictator Lydia and Solutions That Might Actually Be Implemented In Our Current Context.

    The notion that GU can solve its housing and space constraints by throwing up a bunch of 20-story buildings may be a perfectly reasonable solution under the first category, but not in the second. It's not just the neighbors, either, but OGB, CFA, and others who would undoubtedly object. OP can't run roughshod over them even if it wanted to.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your concluding paragraph.

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