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GW neighbors continue to battle

(Published September 10, 2001)

By CHRIS SMITH

Staff Writer

Longtime Foggy Bottom residents and George Washington University administrators are in a heated battle over the increased number of undergraduates living off-campus and the effects it is having in the neighborhood located west of the downtown area.

GWU’s main campus has been located in Foggy Bottom for more than 87 years; however, longtime residents have become increasingly agitated with the school’s efforts to move more and more students into off-campus housing rather than utilize available campus space.

The communications office of Mayor Anthony A. Williams, a Foggy Bottom resident, said he is "supportive of the efforts of George Washington University."

But other Foggy Bottom residents, such Michael Thomas, former president of the Foggy Bottom Association, said the school’s efforts to work with the community have not been nearly good enough.

"The campus has 43 acres of land which is not fully developed," Thomas said. "The school has built only one dorm in the past 10 or 15 years. Each year hundreds of students do not have housing alternatives. Apartments and townhouses occupied by students are largely de facto dorms for nine months."

To accommodate the influx of students living off-campus, GWU in recent years has bought the old Howard Johnson Hotel and arranged long-term leases at the St. James hotel and the Pennsylvania House – a tactic Foggy Bottom residents said is hurting the tourism industry by taking the real estate and the hotel tax, said Ellie Becker, also a former president of the Foggy Bottom Association.

Becker said she does not want her neighborhood to turn into a dormitory.

"During the 1970s and 80s I hardly knew the students were here," she said. "All of a sudden they started mushrooming. Concerned people like me who pay taxes and contribute to the neighborhood are dealing more and more with housing being taken over by students. My concern is that the way students are taking over the neighborhood in becoming uncontrollable. Someone needs to improvise a plan to protect Foggy Bottom."

Resident Marilyn Rubin said the co-existence between the college students and longtime Foggy Bottom inhabitants has been a big issue.

"I am not anti-student," said Rubin, tenant president of Columbia Plaza Apartments, "but GW should be housing more students on campus. Non-students should not be told it is OK if students party until 2 or 3 in the morning. People are getting disoriented with the living conditions."

Students have become the majority in apartment complexes in Foggy Bottom, such as Columbia Plaza, which has 1,200 units in five buildings. Currently, GWU students occupy around 800 units, Rubin said.

People are scared to death in Columbia Plaza, Thomas said, because ownership has the power to raise the rent when students go home for the summer and many retirees cannot handle the rent hikes.

"When tenants decide to move out of the apartments it is immediately made known to GW," Rubin said. "The management excludes anyone else from renting an apartment."

On March 29 the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment issued an audit capping the number of undergraduate students enrolled at GWU based on its February 1999 total, temporarily ending 18 months of discussions between community representatives, District officials and GWU administrators.

The audit also required GWU to house at least 70 percent of its 1999 enrollment on campus, and the BZA also prohibited the university from constructing anything off campus until they met the new regulations.

The university responded by filing a suit in the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, declaring the restrictions unconstitutional, Becker said. BZA remanded the audit, but the case is still pending.

"It is back into BZA’s hands now," said Jacquelyn Lemire, current president of the Foggy Bottom Association.

However, GWU has already taken some initiative by revising its campus plan to include two on-campus housing sites resulting in approximately 425 additional beds on campus to a total of 5,400.

According to campus plan the university will also create an additional 302 new beds on campus through conversion of units in existing campus buildings to dormitory use, including the phase out of graduate students and the replacement of those students with undergraduates.

"Building residence halls cannot happen in a day," said Gretchen King, GWU director of media relations. "Our goal is to have all freshmen and sophomore students housed on campus as quickly as possible."

The institution of the policy for the Foggy Bottom campus would require all freshmen and sophomores to live in university housing will take effect in the fall of 2001 for incoming freshmen and fall of 2002 for both freshman and sophomores.

The university will also establish an orientation program for its students to address "good neighbor" issues, she said.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator