Feature

Growing Pains: The University’s plan to expand and the neighbors’ struggle to stop it

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On Tuesday in Copley Formal Lounge, the architects of Georgetown University’s 2010 Campus Plan presented to the campus community the tentative blueprint for the next decade of the University’s development. The presentation was attended by about 20 staff and faculty, and hosted by five top University administrators. Halfway through the presentation, only two students were in the audience.

Although the sparse student attendance at Tuesday’s open house and presentation would seem to suggest that the 2010 Plan will have a minimal impact on Georgetown University and its students, the reality is otherwise. The plan asks for authorization to build an entirely new student center in New South Hall, an addition onto the Reiss Science Center, accommodations for over 100 graduate students behind Wisemiller’s and 1789, and a roof over a resurfaced Kehoe Field. The University hopes to increase graduate student enrollment from 5,512 to 8,700, about 60 percent, over the next ten years. Georgetown will also try to reauthorize building for  proposed  items from the 2000 Campus Plan—the new science building, an addition onto Lauinger Library, and an addition onto McDonough Gymnasium.

If the plan is Georgetown’s way of articulating its goals for the next decade, then the University has indicated it wants a become greener campus, a more academically competitive institution, a better place for student activities and athletics, and, by expanding its graduate studies program, more financially comfortable.

In short, Georgetown University intends to grow. It will face some considerable issues as it tries to do so. Its space constraints and an objecting community will challenge many of its efforts. Despite several obstacles, you can bet on Georgetown’s expansion.

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Since the 2010 Plan is not a promise to build any of the proposed structures—aptly demonstrated by unbuilt items, like the science building, which had been proposed under the 2000 Plan—the term “wishlist” is often used by administrators as shorthand to describe the Campus Plan, but that is a misnomer at best. District law requires the University to submit a plan every ten years to predict its future impact on the community and define the new projects and structures planned for the next decade. When the time comes to compile a draft, Georgetown isn’t exactly the spoiled kid throwing together a hasty wishlist in the weeks leading up to his birthday.

According to Charles DeSantis, who chairs the Campus Plan steering committee and coordinates the planning process, the plan must knit together the needs of different parties around campus.

“Each of these seats of the expansion are always thinking, ‘What is our next thing, what’re we doing, what’re we doing?’” DeSantis said. “And so it’s [created] in partnership with what people are already thinking in their own areas when the need arises to in some way articulate how it might impact the plan.”

The “seats of expansion” with the most weight handle academics, student space, and green space as evidenced by the feature goals in the proposed plan.

Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson said that the University is looking to strengthen its science program by renewing approval for the science building and authorization for an addition to Reiss. While DeSantis said that administrators have not begun to talk about what aspects of the plan will be prioritized once it passes, administrators have repeatedly said that the University will begin construction on the science building as soon as it is financially feasible.

University Spokesperson Julie Green Bataille said that Georgetown is “doing everything [it] can outside of putting shovels in the ground in terms of infrastructure to make sure that when we can secure financing, we’re ready to go.”

The plan will also provide for improved student space, which Olson said administrators recognize as currently insufficient. The 2010 Plan includes a proposal to create a New South Student Center, which Olson said would “develop about 36,000 square feet of space … to include new dining, coffee house, or pub space, a large student ballroom space, some space for student media groups, radio, TV, dance spaces, some just student gathering and hang-out space, and maybe some other sort of student-serving retail on a small scale.”

The New South Student Center is one of the more certain projects to be included in the plan. According to Fitz Lufkin (COL `11), who has been involved in a student-led initiative for more student space, the administration has committed to making funding for the Center a part of its upcoming capital campaign.

The University may also be adding an addition onto Lauinger Library. While details remain vague, University Librarian Artemis Kirk is already in discussions with students about what an addition should include, according to Olson.

Any construction demands some amount of physical space, but the University has little to spare. Georgetown is bounded by a publicly-owned park and private residential areas, making boundary adjustment or expansion all but impossible.

At a May community meeting in which University Architect Alan Brangman, Vice President for Student Affairs Linda Greenan, and Olson presented some of the 2010 Plan’s initial concepts to Georgetown’s residents, University-contracted architects said it would take a fair amount of “creativity” to find new places to build within Georgetown’s clearly defined, immovable borders. These constraints mean that Georgetown must expand within an area that several neighbors constantly insist is already “saturated” with people and structures.

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The problems the neighbors enumerate when talking about students on local listservs and at community meetings are familiar enough: students issuing out from large, disruptive parties make noise as they traipse through West Georgetown and Burleith late at night, while their trash attracts rats, and their poorly maintained residences are eyesores that drive down real estate prices. For the past several years, neighbors have lodged complaints about the University’s Georgetown University Transportation Shuttle buses too, saying that their drivers are reckless and dangerous, and that the buses place an unnecessary traffic burden on residential streets, as well as shake the foundations of their houses.

At a series of community meetings the University held throughout November to present the draft plan to neighbors, topic by topic, these specific complaints cohered into an overarching one: the University’s activities had encroached too far outside of its gates. “I don’t understand why you are addicted to expansion,” a resident at the meeeting said.

Neighborhood residents made the most of these meetings—plus a five hour meeting at the end of May to discuss the plan while it was in an earlier phase of development—making unequivocally clear that the neighbors oppose the presence of the University and its students outside the school’s walls.

But the power of neighborhood residents to stymie University expansion is a more complicated matter.Jeanne Lord, Georgetown’s associate vice president for student affairs, said that the University made a conscious effort to solicit community input at several stages of the plan—yet the draft plan contains little of what neighbors lobbied so hard for.

While the University agreed to cap its undergraduate enrollment for the next ten years, its graduate population will burgeon. Although architects identified space to put nearly 800 beds on campus during the May meeting, the current plan does not ask for the authority to consider building any new undergraduate housing, which neighbors had hoped would draw students out of the community.

Olson explained that he and other administrators feel Georgetown already houses an appropriate number of its undergraduates—84 perecent—on campus, which in his definition, includes University-owned townhouses, Alumni Square, and East Campus. Needless to say, the neighbors take issue with this definition of  “on-campus.” They demand nothing less than 100 percent of undergradates living within the walls of Georgetown.

Neighborhood residents see most of the plan, like new graduate student housing and additional on-campus parking, as an affront.

“[Our input is] being heard, it’s been voiced often enough, but it’s not being factored in,” Jennifer Altemus (COL `88), president of the Citizens’ Association of Georgetown, said. “At the beginning there was a lot of give and take but now we’re being asked just to give.”

Neighbors have succeeded in rerouting GUTS buses from the public streets they live on. At one of the recent meetings, Vice President for Facilities & Student Housing Karen Frank said that it was the University’s long term goal to run all of its GUTS buses out of the Canal Road entrance to campus, except for the Wisconsin Avenue route.

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The draft of the 2010 Plan exhibited on Tuesday must overcome a number of obstacles before it becomes the next decade’s official blueprint for University expansion. Before the current plan from 2000-2010 expires on December 31, 2010, Georgetown must finalize its draft and submit it to both the Old Georgetown Board and the  D.C. Zoning Commission, which ultimately approves the plan.

Each step is a negotiation that may force the University to scrap or compromise parts of the final draft plan, but the biggest hurdle for the University may ultimately be the District’s Zoning Commission. The Zoning Commission must renew the zoning order for the science building, which has expired, but student ANC Commissioner Aaron Golds (COL `11) said that process is unlikely to be contentious.

Because it has jurisdiction over all of D.C., the Zoning Commission counts on the opinions of hyperlocal bodies to help inform its decisions—and for Georgetown, that’s the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, a panel of seven neighbor-elected commissioners and one student commissioner whose advisory opinions of the plan will be given great weight later in the plan’s approval process.

University Architect Alan Brangman said that the 2010 Plan will face the strongest objections from the ANC. Although its commissioners do not have the explicit power to veto the plan, the University must still be sensitive to these objections, since members of the Zoning Commission will count on the ANC’s evaluation when deciding whether to approve the plan.

It was at this final stage that the University faced its toughest opposition during the approval process for the 2000 Plan. The Board of Zoning Adjustment, passed a version of that plan that did not allow the University to raise its undergraduate enrollment cap, and required the University to publicly disclose, in-depth, the number and nature of student Code of Conduct violations. The University wound up getting the restrictions overturned—but only in the D.C. Court of Appeals.

Will the approval process be ugly this time around?

Neighbors grew increasingly testy as this month’s meetings dragged on, and they increasingly felt their concerns had been ignored. Several community leaders, such as Altemus and ANC Commissioner Ron Lewis, have already vowed to fight the plan if the University attempts to pass it in its current form.

Lord said that the University communicated with the community differently for this plan from the way it did in 2000; Brangman said he hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

Que sera, sera, Golds said.

“It’ll kind of be what it is. If they decide to come out against it, we can’t make that decision for them,” he said. “It kind of is what it is at this point, and we’ll go forward with what we think is the best thing for the University for the next decade, and hopefully the neighbors are sort of willing to go along with that.”

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The scene at any one of the presentations that administrators held with neighbors differed greatly from the hardly-attended student presentation in Copley Formal Lounge. Whether it was standing-room-only in the ornate room in Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, or a small group of fifteen neighborhood residents, the administrators hosting the meeting were always on the defensive.

Greenan found herself having to speaking calmly over a chorus of objections to the proposed growth of the graduate student population. Brangman, who has shown himself to have little patience for conciliatory responses, frequently admitted that the University and the neighbors just did not see eye to eye on many issues, and challenged neighbors to turn angry comments into questions. In a rare moment of lost reserve, Olson snapped at a neighbor who accused the University of being devious about its intentions.

The difference in audience participation and passion doesn’t necessarily point to total student apathy, or neighbor belligerence. While the University organized five well-publicized meetings this month alone for neighbors to comment on the plan, and announced them far in advance, the meeting for the campus community was announced the day before it took place. As of last Saturday, Georgetown Univerisity Student Association Marketing and Advertising Director Molly Breen (MSB `11), who has been heavily involved in the plan’s formation, did not know at what time or where the meeting would be held.

Speaking to the difference, Bataille pointed out that neighbors asked for the series of meetings. Breen said that the University did not need to present the plan in as much detail to its students or staff.

“The neighbors will work hard to hinder the plan, whereas the students will work to expand the plan,” Breen said. There’s no point in presenting the 2010 Plan earlier, she said, since students will be much more willing embrace it.

Breen and Golds agree that most of the plan benefits both present and future Georgetown students. Breen said even the possibly onerous expansion of the Students’ Neighborhood Action Program program, the party-breaking patrols that monitor neighborhoods where students live, is one such item—since it will help mitigate some of the tension between off-campus student residents and permanent neighborhood residents.

For his part, Golds is pleased that the University has committed to improving student space.

“I am generally pleased with where the plan is going,” he said. “The process of actually seeing some of these things involve some growing pains, and it’s not perfect. It’s not the ideal I would have, but it’s more good than bad.” ◊

Additional reporting by Juliana Brint, Sam Sweeney, and Galen Weber.