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Citizens groups want campus plans enforced

(Published March 13, 2000)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

Recent property purchases by George Washington University have angered neighbors and prompted citizens groups to study ways to get all the District’s universities to stick to their campus plans.

The university’s purchase of a 28.55 percent stake in the Columbia Plaza apartment complex became the latest in a series of off-campus property acquisitions to anger some Foggy Bottom residents who say the institution is ignoring its own 10-year campus plan.

The Federation of Citizens Associations, which includes member associations from 15 of the 16 communities that border universities, has formed a committee to come up with legislative and regulatory strategies to keep all the universities in compliance with their campus plans.

"We have totally uncontrolled universities that all of a sudden in the last 13 years have gone into expansion mode and have harmed their communities," federation President Guy Gwynne said.

Universities in the District are required to submit 10-year plans to the Board of Zoning Adjustment that detail the school’s future course in areas such as student enrollment, construction projects, traffic and parking strategies, and planned campus expansions. For years neighborhood activists have complained that the campus planning process is flawed because universities continue to buy property outside the campus boundaries, convert it into student dormitories, or in some cases neglect the property to the point where it becomes a blight in the neighborhood. Gwynne noted that Georgetown University currently houses about 2,400 students in university housing that is outside the school’s campus plan boundaries. He said ideally the institutions should be more like Gallaudet University, which is almost completely self-contained on its campus in Northeast Washington.

Gwynne said he hopes to be able to change the campus planning process to make the universities’ plans contractually binding and school boundaries firm.

GWU Assistant Vice President Bernard Demczuk defended a university’s right to buy properties outside its campus borders just as any person or business in the District has that right.

Demczuk stressed that the university has no intention of driving neighbors out of Foggy Bottom, as has been suggested by some opponents of the university.

"We have no interest whatsoever in disturbing the historic nature of Foggy Bottom," Demczuk said. He also said that the university itself adds to the diversity and stability of the neighborhood.

"Because we’re here, this place functions very well," he said. "If we weren’t, guess what you’d have here in Foggy Bottom? K Street law firms. And you can bet they wouldn’t care about the neighborhood."

In addition to the Federation of Citizens Associations, the Ward 2 Democrats have also taken up the issue of campus plans. The group held a moderated forum last month and has planned another forum March 21 on the subject. According to Chairman Budd Lane, the forums were scheduled in response to GWU’s buy-in of Columbia Plaza and its acquisition and conversion into student housing of the Howard Johnson hotel on Virginia Avenue NW.

Lane said the group is trying to find out what rules and regulations the university is legally bound by with respect to its campus plan.

"We hope to get something where we can at least pinpoint the point of enforcement," Lane said.

Demczuk acknowledged that because GWU’s campus plan is currently up for review before the BZA, it would most likely be the first target for the citizens groups that are pushing for stricter enforcement of the campus plans.

LeDroit Park residents went through the campus planning process two years ago when Howard University’s 10-year plan was submitted to the BZA. Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners then had complained that the university was purposely writing a vague campus plan so that future expansion and construction couldn’t be directly contradicted by the plan.

The commission eventually gave its approval to the campus plan after several months of meetings with school officials to hammer out compromises. But many of the same complaints concerning off-campus property acquisitions that in effect expand the campus boundaries were raised during the process.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator