Housing Complex

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.

Illustration by Robert Meganck

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

  • DC Guy

    I am glad to see the irony of the Westover folks being highlighted. The result of their efforts will be more AU students renting group homes in Spring Valley and AU Park.

    Maybe these people should live out in the country where there won't be kids on their lawn.

  • Manny

    Screw those folks, what a buncha' blowhards.

  • RTme

    This is just too much.

    ANC 3D has also been all over this. Another example of why ANCs should be disbanded. They do not represent the true interests of the community. A parking lot is better? More kids in the neighborhood is better?

    This is purely a personal vendetta for a select few members of ANC 3D and their cronies at Westover Place.

  • northwesterneer

    (as an aside, kids living in basements rented out by homeowners may actually be more beneficial to homeowners)

  • Bob

    @DC guy--

    Your point about students skipping the dorms to live off campus is correct. Beyond group houses (which have become fewer in number), many apartment buildings in the area are full of AU students, even the expensive ones. It's likely that the new Cathedral Commons development on Wisconsin will essentially become just a big dorm complex for AU students whose parents have big checkbooks.

  • Aldo Kelrast

    @Bob - ummm you completely missed the point.

    Undergrads want to be near campus, as close as possible in fact.

    Yes upper classmen want apartments but they will overwhelming choose University housing if they offer apartments.

    But the cranks in Westover are fighting AU building more student housing hence more students living off campus as you seem to fear.

    Also universities have more tools to regulate student behavior if it occurs in university owned housing so the same cranks complaining about poor student behavior are exacerbating the problem they claim to be so alarmed about by pushing students into the neighborhood.

    An example of not being able to see the forest for the trees.

  • ZC

    My partner works for DC Zoning Commission. They've spent hundreds of hours working with ONE individual who held up one of AU's recent buildings recently built....for over a year. It came down to an issue over a tree. When the ZC finally asked why he didn't just say what why he was truly against AU's plans, he said he didn't think they would listen. AU was and continues to be an upstanding neighbor. There comes a time when when development needs to proceed with or without the neighborhood NIMBY concerns being addressed and if they continue to stall, they should reimburse the city and developers for their time. We the DC taxpayers are paying for their tactics.

  • geraldp

    Maybe shouldn't choose to live near a college if you don't like young, loud, drunk people.

    Refreshing to see you sought comment and didn't just link to another story thus avoiding the trappings of Internet journalism. Kudos.

  • Will

    Tom Quinn pretty much sums it up about ANC 3D. The sad part is that if they worked more constructively, they could probably arrange for some nice neighborhood amenities, like a bike trail on Nebraska partly on AU property, perhaps something nice and neighborly in that 65' landscaped buffer, or better neighbor access to AU's excellent facilities. But then again, this is the ANC that fought bike lanes on New Mexico Ave for 3+ years.

    Next time there's a flare up in the bike lane wars, someone should check in on how they are ruining the neighborhood property values and causing a parking menace up in ANC 3D.

  • hugitout

    The real kicker is that faux citizen associations and individual ANC members claim to "represent the neighborhood" and government bodies and entities fold under their pressure.

    This is all about personal vendetta and people with lots of time and money. A deadly combination.

    Perhaps these NIMBYs should venture out of their private enclave and go to another District neighborhood who would absolutely give anything to have an anchor institution like AU in the neighborhood. Something that brings culture, jobs, and money.

  • Sally

    Hey ZC,

    Maybe your partner shouldn't be blabbing zoning commission business so that you can broadcast it on a list serv. Gives me even more confidence in the smarts and ethics of the commission, OP and its staff -- not.

  • Katie Conway

    The Westover Board is currently blessed with hard working, intelligent and rational members. Unfortunately the Board must deal with this small group of witless incendiaries who do not represent Westover residents. They are 21st century small-minded luddites wreaking havoc on any compromise the Westover Board and AU might make. Ditto for certain members of ANC 3D.

  • fred

    @hugitout if ANCs don't represent their neighborhood they should be voted out

    if faux citizen groups are steering the agenda real ones should step to the fore

    Don't hate the player, hate the game. Sounds like you hate democracy

  • Mario

    Tough shit, Westover Place. Now you're like every other neighborhood in the city, with constant construction, more neighbors and traffic, and much more density.

  • yimby

    No mention here of the would be retail that was to line nebraska avenue in the original plans. Many of us here in the neighborhood were really excited at the prospect of a retail row and were surprised the westover fools got it nearly all nixed. All we have in this neighborhood is a starbucks and a couple lackluster restaurants. Was looking forward to perhaps a couple nice fast-casual restaurants. Maybe a hybrid campus bookstore/barns and noble like is going in at Catholic U, Hell maybe even a Trader Joes would have been interested. Or dare I say it. A Tavern! What ill never understand is how a few crotchety old nimbys who are always in the minority can be so effective. Isnt this development all pretty much matter of right? Its a parking lot bordering New Mexico, Nebraska, and Mass Ave. Which all have 12 story condos on them. There are a LOT of people living in those condos and there is very little for them to walk to. Last I read nearly all the retail that was to line Nebraska is gone from the plans. The ultimate irony is these protesters think they are protecting their property values by keeping development out when in fact they would actually go UP if there were more walkable amenities. Also Build the brown line and put a metro stop up here!

  • Chris

    Wow just wow. This is just laughable. Are all of the local residents around AU this whiny (seems to be more so than local residents around any other university in the area), or is this just an obnoxious, vocal minority? The request to have the dorm windows to not be able to open is the demand I like the most. The demand for AU to pay for security guard at Westover Place is a close second.

    Both of these are the funniest thing since AU started arbitrarily issuing those fake parking tickets in the neighborhood to anyone with a car that remotely looked like it might belong to an AU student.

    Newsflash - AU was founded in 1893, long before any of you decided to lay down roots in the neighborhood, and it will be around long after you are gone. Even though some of its buildings, including the new dorm, may have come along after you did, universities expand and grow from time to time. It's a fact of life that you have to expect if you live in a neighborhood that contains a university. Live elsewhere if you don't like it.

    Also, I am not an AU student, employee or alum, though I did take one class there while in grad school at another university with a reciprocity agreement. I don't live near AU either.

    The locals have an option - move! AU should not have to kowtow to a few people who don't like noise and couldn't foresee it in the neighborhood they moved into.

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  • Commissar Molotov

    To be fair, American University students are indeed stuck-up, miserable little pricks. I wouldn't want to live next door to them, either.

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