The rhetoric is familiar.
any residents of West Georgetown and Burleith are fed up with students’ late-night parties, noise levels and excessive trash in the communities surrounding the university. It is the never-ending story of town-gown relations.
This time, however, the context is different, and the implications are more significant. Georgetown is preparing to submit its 10-year campus plan to the D.C. Zoning Commission, which details the university’s physical expansion from 2010 to 2020. It is a long, arduous process for the university, as it establishes building priorities for the next decade and consults community members on the effects this expansion will have on the neighborhood.
After the university released the first draft of the plan on Nov. 12, administrators held several open meetings for members of the community to learn about the plan and offer feedback. While Georgetown has not yet finalized its plan, local residents and citizen associations have voiced considerable opposition to certain elements of the plan – particularly the lack of any additional on-campus undergraduate housing for the next decade.
These concerns may stand in the way of the university’s effort to secure a green light for future physical expansion. Georgetown anticipates completing its plan in early 2010 and submitting it to the D.C. Zoning Commission for approval. It will also be submitted to the architecturally focused Old Georgetown Board early next year. The zoning commission, however, relies heavily on the input of local residents and the Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E.
Section 210 of the D.C. Zoning Regulations stipulates that universities should be “not likely to become objectionable to neighboring property because of noise, traffic, number of students, or other objectionable conditions.” Furthermore, according to Jennifer Steingasser, the deputy director of development review and historic preservation in the D.C. Office of Planning, the local ANC is accorded the legal standard of “great weight” in advising the zoning commission in the approval of a campus plan.
“The zoning commission takes seriously the position of the ANC and the community groups in assessing the potential impacts of a campus plan on a community,” Steingasser said. “This is not to say that the zoning commission must reach the same conclusion as the ANC, but they give great deference to the community concerns.”
These two realities have propelled vocal opposition to the plan and the current residential situation in West Georgetown and Burleith. According to university officials, 16 percent of the current undergraduate population is estimated to live off campus.
Jennifer Altemus, president of the Citizens Association of Georgetown, said that the future of university housing is at the center of the debate about the campus plan.
Officials report that Georgetown will not expand its undergraduate population; it intends to keep its current cap of 6,016 traditional undergraduates in place for the decade 2010-2020. University spokesperson Julie Bataille said that this decision has helped to shape the plan.
“The fact that we do not anticipate any growth in traditional undergraduates plays into the decision not to include any new undergraduate housing in the plan as well,” she said. “And right now, we provide housing to the largest percentage of undergraduates of almost any school in the D.C. Metro area.”
Altemus said that the percentage of students currently living off-campus remains a serious problem.
“[The 16 percent mark] is a concern right now. The number of complaints we get on a daily basis is overwhelming – students need to be giving back to the community and not taking away from the quality of life,” she said.
Lenore Rubino, president of the Burleith Citizens Association, said there are many layers to the challenges of students living off-campus, including noise, student safety, alcohol and the use of Metropolitan Police Department resources. Despite some frustrations with the process – “almost nothing we’ve been saying to the university is getting through,” she said – Rubino expressed hope that a workable solution can be arranged.
Altemus hesitated when confronted with the issue of the university’s plan for accommodating graduate students. In its recent draft, the university indicated plans to construct an approximately 120-bed graduate student apartment building on 36th Street between N and Prospect Streets, behind 1789 and The Tombs restaurants.
“What blew me away at the last meeting was that when there is space in the walls [of campus], why are [university officials] so adamant about the 1789 block? They basically said, `Because we want to.’ And I don’t think that is being respectful of the community,” Altemus said.
The university also announced plans to increase main campus and Medical Center graduate enrollment by 3,205 students over the next decade. But over 50 percent of the planned spike is expected to come in Georgetown’s School of Continuing Studies, which caters primarily to professional and non-residential students.
Nevertheless, Rubino said she is worried that this influx of graduate students will lead to more overcrowding in West Georgetown and Burleith.
Aaron Golds (COL ’11), the student representative for ANC-2E, said he backs the university’s housing plans.
“[The housing plan] is a decision the university made that I largely support. Building a dorm is not the best use of resources right now,” Golds said. “Many neighbors want another campus dorm to be priority [No.] 1, and I do not think that’s [the] wisest course of action.”
Golds noted that building renovations do not need to be included in the campus plan, so the university is not ruling out renovating any existing structures.
As she observed the most recent first-draft proposal, Altemus was content with some of the progress that has been made since the initial options phase in May. She cited the removal of the on-campus convocation from the plan, the installation of two staff members to serve as community advisers in West Georgetown and Burleith, and the doubling of Student-Neighborhood Assistance Program personnel. Rubino lauded the community advisers’ plan as something that has “enormous potential in connecting the community.”
But the concerns are overwhelming, Altemus said, and if the university does not revise the plan to include additional on-campus housing, “there is little doubt we will oppose.”
Altemus added that CAG has already been working closely with the ANC and ANC-2E Chairman Ron Lewis.
Golds, however, said he plans to use his role on the ANC-2E to advocate for Georgetown students, and he believes the university’s housing plan is in line with that responsibility. Golds also highlighted the wide range of issues addressed in the campus plan, in addition to the housing plan, that will impact students. The draft plan includes an addition to Reiss Science Center, a roof over Kehoe Field, development of student space in the New South basement, possible changes to Georgetown University Transportation Shuttle routes, an addition to Lauinger Library and reauthorized elements of the 2000-2010 Campus Plan, including the science center, an athletic training facility and a multisport facility.
Steingasser said that the zoning commission is empowered to add conditions to the university’s submitted campus plan if it deems them necessary.
“The zoning commission will weigh the proposed plan against the adverse impacts and may require conditions that they feel can mitigate the impacts,” Steingasser said.
In 2000, the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment added several conditions to the approved campus plan as requested by community organizations, including an undergraduate enrollment cap. Georgetown appealed the decision to the D.C. Court of Appeals, and in 2004 won the case, removing the cap.
The Old Georgetown Board, a subsidiary body of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, also plays a role in the approval process. David Cox, a D.C.-based architect who serves as one of three members of the Old Georgetown Board, said that its mission is limited entirely to an architectural appraisal of any proposal for building or construction in the Old Georgetown historic district.
“Basically, we’re evaluating how any project fits in with historic character of Georgetown,” Cox said. “We’re focusing strictly on exterior appearance and the visual impact of a new building on surrounding context.”
Thomas Luebke, the secretary of the Commission of Fine Arts, said that when the university’s final campus plan is submitted, the Old Georgetown Board will review the proposal and send it to the fine arts commission for final approval.
“In terms of evaluating any project (or master plan), the Old Georgetown Board’s role is not typically `activist’ in the sense of instigating meetings, brokering compromises or making line-by-line revisions,” Luebke said. “Instead . the board typically makes comments on aspects of the proposal as they are submitted, often asking for revisions in order to make the project most supportive of and compatible with the context and character of the historic district.”