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D.C. planners side with residents on GW campus plan

(Published September 25, 2000)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

Residents of Foggy Bottom who have been battling George Washington University’s expansion in their neighborhood got an unexpected surprise from the city government when the Office of Planning issued a report recommending that the Board of Zoning Adjustment reject the school’s 10-year campus plan.

The planning office’s report set forth a series of recommendations to ease student housing pressures in the diminishing neighborhood, which – if implemented – could reduce the number of students living off campus in Foggy Bottom.

"We are extremely pleased that the Office of Planning has taken the concerns of residents to heart," Advisory Neighborhood Commission Chairman Barbara Spillinger said.

The most far-reaching proposal would require the university to keep track of the number of students living off-campus in Foggy Bottom in 2001 and then limit students in Foggy Bottom to no more than that "baseline" number. Students above that number would have to be housed either on campus or outside of the Foggy Bottom area.

"We think it’s illegal," Charles Barber, senior counsel for the university, said of the proposal. "Such a plan would violate the D.C. Human Rights Act that protects students from discrimination in housing."

The report acknowledged that the school could face legal problems if it tried to institute limits on student housing in the neighborhood under current D.C. law.

"There is concern…over whether certain incentives or disincentives instituted by the University would violate the D.C. Human Rights Act," the report said. "While it is OP’s position that the University could craft a compliance package that did not violate the Act, at this time OP suggests that the Board not include this requirement in its Order until such a time as the legal matter is clarified through an amendment to the Act."

Such a change in the law would have to be made by D.C. City Council.

"The city council should think long and hard before they decide it’s okay to discriminate against students on the basis of housing," Barber said.

The city also recommended that the school implement a plan where it would increase its undergraduate student housing at the same pace that its enrollment increases. Barber called the plan unfeasible.

"We need time to build beds, and what their one-to-one proposal would do is freeze our undergraduate enrollment," he said. "We have a significant economic impact on the District for the positive. We think it’s counterproductive to restrict our undergraduate enrollment."

The Office of Planning also recommended that strict enforcement mechanisms be put in place "to provide certainty for the community and motivation for the University" to keep the level of students in Foggy Bottom below the "baseline" number. One of the measures recommended was suspension of the school’s building permits if the number of students enrolled exceeds the baseline.

The report also recommended restricting the university’s requests for developing off-campus housing in buildings in which they own a financial interest. Neighbors have complained in recent years that the university was buying too many buildings off campus and turning them into student housing. The Howard Johnson’s hotel on Virginia Avenue NW is held up as an example of the school’s off-campus real estate acquisitions. The university also recently bought a 28.8 percent financial interest in the Columbia Plaza apartments, alarming some residents of the complex who fear it may be converted to student housing.

The planning office’s recommendations were heard at a Sept. 19 hearing. The BZA has scheduled one final public hearing on the university’s 10-year plan Sept. 26. Barber said the board would most likely announce at that meeting when it will make its decision.

Barber said he overall is disappointed by the planning office’s report.

"The whole tone was unnecessarily negative," he said. "They didn’t have to say ‘We recommend you deny their application unless they meet these conditions.’ They could have said, ‘We recommend you approve their application provided they meet these conditions.’"

Copyright © 2001 The Common Denominator