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GWU vs. neighbors
After years of acrimony, can they agree
on former hospital site's re-development?

(Published October 17, 2005)

Staff Writer

The dirt lot that was the site of the old George Washington University Hospital will remain dirt for a few more years, but the future of what goes on that dirt is a hot topic today.

Retail, office space and residential apartments are proposed by university officials and real estate developers for the Northwest Washington site, commonly known as Square 54. But this development apparently hinges on whether GW can build sufficient academic and student housing facilities elsewhere on its campus.

"The city has to make sure that GW is able to accommodate all its projected needs and uses within its campus boundary before the university can begin building on Square 54," said Chris Shaheen, the city's neighborhood planner for Ward 2, which encompasses Foggy Bottom and the college campus.

GW officials propose building four structures on Square 54. Two office buildings would front Washington Circle and Pennsylvania Avenue and two residential buildings would front 22nd Street and 23rd Street. Restaurants are one possible use proposed for the ground level of the office buildings.

A retail corridor along both sides of I Street, from the Foggy Bottom Metro station to Pennsylvania Avenue, is a long-term proposal that would start with small businesses on the ground level of the apartment buildings. These businesses would provide neighborhood conveniences such as a dry cleaner, a hardware store, a florist and a coffee house. A medium-sized grocery store is proposed below ground, with an entrance possibly positioned at the corner of 22nd and I street.

Square 54, located directly across the street from the new George Washington University Hospital on the city's West End, is considered an ideal retail location because of high pedestrian traffic in and out of the Metro station, as well as students and residents in the area, according to developers. Retail stores would increase street activity after 5 p.m., also making the area safer, they say.

"I think what students and community members feel is lacking from Foggy Bottom is places to get little things done and places to get something to eat at a reasonable price," said Meredith Wolff, the student body's vice president of community affairs.

To meet the university's projected housing and academic needs without using Square 54, GW's development team says the university would have to be allowed to increase the height of what it can build on its existing property, called a floor area ratio (FAR). GW has proposed an increase from 3.5 FAR to 4.5 FAR. This would enable the university, using GW officials' terminology, to "grow up, not out."

"It makes sense to encourage nonprofits to efficiently use their property so they don't have to expand out," said Sherry Rutherford, GW's director of real estate planning and development.

Some longtime Foggy Bottom residents, who have watched GW buy more and more property in the neighborhood and grow outside of its campus boundaries, say they do not believe that university officials will stick to their promise.

"Foggy Bottom is cooked. There is no more room for GW to keep growing," said Elizabeth Elliot, a member of the Foggy Bottom Association.

Residents like Elliot are asking why the university is not planning to use Square 54, which is a part of its campus, for university purposes.

The answer, according to university officials, is money.

"Historically, its [George Washington's University] endowment has not been on par with other schools we compete with," explained Rutherford.

GW has, until the past decade, predominantly been a commuter school. Commuters don't build the same lasting ties as residents and, thus, do not gift the school with as large donations, Rutherford said. Since Stephen Trachtenberg became president, the strategy to fund the university has been to invest in real estate.

Among its holdings, the university owns buildings at 2000 and 2001 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, One Washington Circle Hotel and the George Washington University Inn.

By dedicating Square 54 to income-producing mixed use, the university would make substantial profits from leasing the land to developers. Those profits would then be used to finance new construction elsewhere on campus as well as academic programs, according to officials.

The university's reputation with many of its residential neighbors has been negative for years, with many believing GW focuses on being a business first and a university second.

But student representative Wolff, who said she came into the process with skepticism, said she supports the plans because they will benefit the students. Another funding source for the university is likely to "help offset" tuition increased, Wolff reasons, which have totaled more than $10,000 during the last five years.

Rutherford said the university's plan for Square 54 also would allow the land to be subject to property taxes, benefiting the D.C. treasury. The university, as a nonprofit educational organization, does not pay property taxes. Even though GW would still own the land, it would be taxed based on what the land is used for.

This is true, agrees Office of Planning Director Ellen McCarthy, on one condition if the university is able to house all of its students on campus. If GW continues to "chase out" other long-term, income tax paying residents, then the gain in property taxes would not necessarily benefit the city.

Further encroachment of students living in the neighborhood is exactly what many Foggy Bottom residents say they fear. Many residential buildings in the area, such as Columbia Plaza, have already been turned into "defacto dorms," buildings that house a large percentage of students. For the longtime D.C. residents who remain, this creates an unpleasant environment because of differences in lifestyle sleeping hours, for example. There are also university-owned residence halls outside the campus boundaries, including the Hall on Virginia Avenue, also known as HOVA, and the Aston dormitory on New Hampshire Avenue.

GW wants to bring its students back onto campus, Rutherford told The Common Denominator. To be in compliance with its campus plan, as approved by the city's Zoning Commission, GW has to provide beds for 70 percent of its undergraduates for an enrollment up to 8,000 students by fall 2006, and one bed for every full-time undergraduate beyond the 8,000-student threshold.

This fall, GW is housing all freshman and sophomores on campus, Rutherford said. A portion of Aston's beds and all of HOVA's 453 beds will be transferred into a new 379-bed dorm on F Street. Single rooms are being converted into doubles in other existing dorms on campus to accommodate the remainder.

GW proposed a total of 1,000 new beds on campus as part of its campus plan. The university has designated space for housing and academic buildings at various locations around the campus, as well as green space, improved pedestrian paths and parking areas distributed for quick access to major streets.

An independent analysis of GW's plans for Square 54 was conducted in May through the Urban Land Institute, a D.C.-based nonprofit research organization. A panel of professionals in the field from all over the country listened to GW's plans and then heard from others who would be affected. The institute's final report, recently published, agreed with university officials that mixed-use would best serve the university, the city and the neighborhood.

"It was easy to make a recommendation because there are a lot of different directions they could go, and certainly mixed-use is one that we fully support," said panelist Bruce Leonard, a principal at StreetSense, a commercial real estate company in Bethesda, Md.

University officials recently held a series of public forums and events, in conjunction with the D.C. Office of Planning and Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2A, to ask members of the Foggy Bottom community to share ideas and discuss concerns about the university's plans for developing the campus and Square 54.

Some residents say they support the plans.

"Whatever they put there is going to be OK with me," said Rita Champange, who identified herself as a longtime resident of Columbia Plaza.

But a core of longtime residents are quite upset with the plans. And they disagree with the supportive stance of ANC 2A Chairman Vincent Micone, who recently relocated into the neighborhood from the Dupont Circle area.

"I don't know why he's [Micone] willing to hand it all over for a grocery store," Elliot said.

Rutherford describes the planning process so far as overwhelmingly positive and points to the planned retail quarter as "a notion that came out of the process."

The Foggy Bottom Association, a nonprofit organization representing 500 households, declined to participate, calling the meetings a "dog and pony show." Ron Cocome, the immediate past president of the association, said he suspected that deals had already been made behind closed doors.

"It's like dealing with the ENRON of nonprofits," he said.

Throughout the planning process, some concerns have been addressed. The first version of the Square 54 plans had just one large office building along Washington Circle and Pennsylvania Avenue. Now, the plan calls for two smaller buildings with a shared lobby that is constructed of different materials to break up a wall. Historical resources and an existing park have been taken off the list of potential development sites on campus.

Other concerns that have been raised, like the height of the buildings at Square 54, have remained unchanged. The planned heights of the office buildings are staggered, starting at 110 feet and increasing to 130 feet, and the apartment buildings are planned to reach 110 feet. Some residents argue that these high-rise buildings will further erode the "charm" of Foggy Bottom that is created by shorter buildings.

This has already occurred to some extent with the construction of Ivory Tower, a massive 729-bed dorm on 23rd Street. Only three, two-story condominiums remain on the block because one resident/owner refused to sell.

"Ivory Tower would have been a better idea to put over where the hospital was," said Megan Horton, a fourth-year GW student.

The developers say that the office buildings are an appropriate continuation of nearby downtown, and that the apartment buildings were planned at a lower height to transition smoothly into the community.

Ultimately, it will be up to the Office of Planning to make the city's official recommendation and the Board of Zoning Adjustment to make the final call.

McCarthy laid out a series of steps that need to be taken before her office makes a recommendation on the plans to the Board of Zoning Adjustment. There are community concerns that GW is over its population cap of 20,000 students for the Foggy Bottom campus, so an independent headcount will be administered, she said. After that occurs, the Office of Planning can knowledgeably determine what the future needs of the campus may be. Then they can discuss what land is developable and what densities are appropriate, taking into consideration issues such as traffic and the impact on the surrounding community.

Finally, Shaheen said, city planners could then determine "what, if any, increase in FAR" there would need to be.

McCarthy said she expects that these steps will be completed in conjunction with the university before it submits its plans for approval, as is standard procedure for all land owners.

"Our distinct preference is to make a recommendation based on a consensus between the university and community," McCarthy said.

But she also said the Office of Planning will attach some conditions to its recommendation. She said city planners have told GW officials that "if we are going to consent to [an increase in FAR], there would have to be some quid pro quo."

Among possible conditions, according to city officials, might be a commitment from GW to not fight the city in court to get its plans amended, as was the case over the university's last campus plan.

"Whatever plan the university agrees to, we don't want to have to spend the next five years defending it in court," McCarthy said.

Another condition could be that the university promises to stick within its boundaries and not acquire additional property.

Rutherford emphasized that because of the open planning process, when GW submits its final proposal for Square 54, there will be no surprises. Even though the Urban Land Institute report recommended a 5.0 FAR for the Foggy Bottom campus, which would permit much higher buildings than currently allowed, GW has determined a 4.5 FAR will be sufficient to meet its needs and will not come back later asking for another increase, Rutherford said.

"That is absolutely not our intention," she said.

But the university is still tweaking its proposal for development on its Foggy Bottom campus. Officials said they expect to submit the plan to city officials late this year or early next. If approved, they would submit the plan for Square 54 afterwards.

If the plan is not approved, it's back to the drawing board, they said.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator