The Calm Before the Dorm
“Development Invades the Preserve of the Wealthy,” declared the Washington Post headline. A new residential project near American University called Westover Place had neighbors up in arms, worried that their peaceful lifestyle would be disrupted by a horde of new residents.
“Here you have these fine established residential neighborhoods, which will be impacted with increased density and traffic and all kinds of things that really could be very damaging,” Polly Shackleton, the D.C. councilmember representing the neighborhood, told the Post.
Raymond F. E. Pushkar, vice president of the Spring Valley-Wesley Heights Citizens Association, complained that the city was “allowing all sorts of development in established neighborhoods.” Neighbors worried that the new residents would worsen traffic and make it harder for them to find parking spaces.
That was September 1977. Fast forward 37 years, and residents of the area are still making the same complaints. Only this time it’s the people who have moved into once-controversial Westover Place raising a stink.
Their target is AU, specifically the “East Campus” dormitories that the school plans to build on a parking lot near Westover. The battle over the East Campus has been going on ever since the university presented its campus plan in 2011. The residents of Westover Place, a gated community east of AU between Massachusetts and New Mexico avenues NW where townhouses routinely sell for more than $1 million, worry that the proximity of additional students will create noise, worsen traffic and parking congestion, and provide regular visual reminders that they bought homes directly next to a college campus.
The university has taken a number of steps to accommodate neighbors’ demands. As the campus plan approval process kicked off, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3D requested that “student residences should be built with tinted windows that shield from residents’ views the type of window hangings that are characteristically found in the windows of AU’s student dorms.”
AU didn’t exactly move to block out views of Pink Floyd, Bob Marley, and “My Goodness My Guinness” posters, but did agree to orient the dorms such that no windows will directly face Westover Place.
Neighbors demanded a buffer between their homes and the dorms. The university consented to placing administrative buildings in between, and to creating a 65-foot landscaped space between those buildings and Westover Place, fenced off so students couldn’t congregate there.
With neighbors worried that the East Campus would bring too many students to the area, AU agreed to cut the number of beds there from 770 to 590. To address noise concerns—and for the safety of people passing below—AU decided to use windows that open only four inches.
But some neighbors want the university to go further. In a June missive to the Westover Place email list, a group of residents listed their demands. Four inches were evidently four too many: The windows on the East Campus buildings, they wrote, shouldn’t open at all. A fenced-in buffer wouldn’t suffice either; a stone wall should be erected parallel to the Westover Place homes that border the campus. And the university should place a guard at the entrance to Westover Place to make sure that no AU students or faculty park in Westover.
AU Assistant Vice President for External Relations and Auxiliary Services Linda Argo says the university has no plans to accede to these demands and that the neighbors have never presented them formally to AU, although they’ve been brought up at community meetings with university officials. The likelihood of additional changes to AU’s plans took a hit on July 28, when the Zoning Commission reaffirmed its approval of the campus plan over the objections of neighborhood groups.
Strained community relations are a given for any college. In D.C., the bitterest fights tend to revolve around approval of the local schools’ campus plans every 10 years. Georgetown University, George Washington University, and the District’s other institutions of higher education have had more than their share of campus-plan battles.
But tempers surrounding AU’s neighborhood interactions may be the hottest. In June, ANC Commissioner Kent Slowinksi, one of the neighbors who’s pushed hardest for more concessions from the university, admitted to punching a university spokesman at a community meeting to discuss the campus plan. Slowinski, like three other leading East Campus opponents I contacted, did not respond to a request for comment.
Rory Slatko, who straddles the town-gown line as both an AU student and an ANC 3D commissioner, says the anger comes not just from the East Campus plan, but that “pre-existing tempers and conflicts are flaring up.” The rising senior is carefully diplomatic with his words about both the university and its neighbors. But when it comes to some of the more exorbitant demands from Westover residents, those that suggest neighbors are offended at the sight of signs of student life, he’s less evenhanded.
“Where there are requests like those, I’m not inclined to be so nuanced about it,” he says. “There is an anti-student sentiment. I think it is often pervasive in town-gown relationships.”
What’s different about this sentiment in the East Campus fight is how it’s played out in the neighbors’ demands. Residents of the area surrounding Georgetown, for instance, have repeatedly pushed the university to house more of its students in on-campus housing, so as to prevent them from spilling out into the neighborhood and wreaking noise and debauchery. Westover residents and other AU neighbors, on the other hand, are fighting a plan to house more students on campus. As of last fall, 60 percent of AU undergraduates lived on campus. The East Campus, in conjunction with two recently completed residences, will allow that figure to rise to the 67 percent required by the Zoning Commission starting in 2016, according to Argo.
The pressure for additional changes to the East Campus isn’t coming from all Westover residents, but rather from a group of them who have grown frustrated with both the university and the Westover Place board of directors for not pushing the school hard enough. Argo says the main source of resistance to the East Campus at this point is “splinter groups that have a specific agenda.”
Not all local ANCs have the same stance toward the East Campus debate, either. Tom Quinn, a commissioner on neighboring ANC 3E, says his commission helped negotiate an agreement as part of the AU law school’s move to Tenleytown that has the school paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to mitigate traffic impacts in the neighborhood. He feels ANC 3D and the neighborhood groups around Wesley Heights haven’t been so pragmatic.
“That’s a philosophical difference between our ANC and other ANCs,” he says. “That ANC seems to be dug in on fighting. You just end up butting heads with these folks who want to sequester AU as much as possible. If these people had their way, they’d put a wall around AU, and no one could go in or out.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery