Housing Complex

How to Understand D.C.’s Town Gown Complex

Oppose, oppose, oppose.

If for some reason you read just this blog and not the rest of the paper, allow me to director your attention to this week's cover story by Shani Hilton, which cuts through the noise and puts together a unified field theory of why wealthy universities fight with their wealthy neighbors. I particularly enjoyed this passage:

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.

For context, I'd just note that this phenomenon is largely confined to schools in Wards 2 and 3: American, Georgetown, and the University of the District of Columbia. As I've noted before, despite the recent (and, it seems, short-lived) attempt to create a city-wide citizen alliance on university issues, Gallaudet and Howard are a completely different ballgame. Around Howard especially, neighbors are mostly frustrated with the University's failure to do anything with the underdeveloped properties around it. Perhaps because Ledroit Park has historically been populated by university employees, students are more accepted, and dorms coexist with single-family homes in relative peace.

In response to Shani's conclusion, that universities should better advertise the benefits they bring to their neighbors, I think commenter Dizzy makes a good point: Wealthy neighbors don't really appreciate amenities like free lectures and access to libraries, because they're able to pay for cultural goods and experiences elsewhere. And they don't take particularly well to the argument that, as Planning Director Harriet Tregoning put it, "the benefits of their presence are obvious."

From what I've heard, a lot of frustration comes with the Universities' promises to keep their students under wraps, when there are clearly limits to what they can do. In that context, I think Universities would be better off telling irate neighbors that "yes, our clients are people between the ages of 18 and 22, and we'll do our best to create a culture of respectful behavior, but at the end of the day, they have the right to live here as much as you do."

The honesty, at least, would be appreciated.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

  • Johnny

    Re; the AU plan for retail
    AU could probably lure a tenant that would make neighbors happy. Think Trader Joes. Just starting that rumor would probably shut a lot of nimbys up. Everyone wants walkable retail but they want it to be retail THEY want. Right now when they hear "retail on nebraska" these old people are probably thinking its going to be a head shop, poster store, college bar, fraternity paddle boutique. Etc. There have been rumors for years that Trader Joes was interested in the area. First it was rumored to open by Chef Geoffs and then it was that it would take over the closed Shoppers off Mass Ave. Clearly it's something residents are clamoring for. A Trader Joe's on Nebraska ave would be the silver bullet to the Nimbys. And a nice amenity for students as well.

  • styglan1

    @Johnny - but why would anyone even consider putting the effort or planning $$s towards those places given how much vitriol the NIMBYs spew every time development is brought up. All it is doing is retarding growth and development.

  • DC Guy

    Someone needs to compare the NW NIMBYs to the Agenda 21 freaks. Of course, the NW NIMBYs may embrace that.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    I thought it was a decent article, but didn't adequately reflect that town-gown tensions are pretty typical everywhere, even though this was mentioned. It is true that the DC process provides for more opportunity for citizen involvement. E.g., in places like Michigan or Maryland, public universities are legally pretty insulated from very much local involvement.

    The thing about Burleith was interesting, but the residents against 1/3 to 36% occupation of houses by students were blaming the students/U and not the property owners who obviously were doing the renting.

    In a lot of places close to universities, very large houses once used by big families are hard to absorb as single family homes given today's typical household size, hence, are used for other purposes (e.g., like all the churches and related institutions on upper 16th St. NW) including student housing. In DC, it's not the size of the house so much as the income capability of a potential owner. Likely the houses could be occupied by SFH, but the property owners are happy with the way things are.

  • Axel

    We sure wish that Trader Joes were going into Cathedral Commons, Giant's giant development along Wisconsin Ave. TJ's would be a much better fit for the area. Modernized or not, it will still be a Giant -- but at least will have room to sell 50 different kinds and sizes of Pringles.

  • DC Guy

    Except Giant owns the property.