Features

A boathouse at last?

By the

September 4, 2003


Tony Johnson’s ready for a boathouse. He’s been ready for a long time.

“I listened to a guy tell me that Georgetown would have its own boathouse when I first started coaching here in the late ‘60s,” said Johnson, the men’s crew head coach since 1989. “It’s been a dream of mine for a long, long time.”

But only now, over the past few months, has that dream made anything more than fitful progress toward reality. The site is finally chosen, the construction money is finally collected, and the plans are drawn up and waiting for approval. By the time current Georgetown first-years graduate, University planners hope a new and magnificent boathouse will have risen from the Potomac’s banks.

According to the latest proposal, its magnificence will be far beyond dispute. The facility will sit on nearly 300 feet of waterfront directly under Healy Tower, and rise 54 feet above the river at its highest point. Designed in the traditional “shingle style,” the plans for the two-story building consist of a center section with two wings stretching along the river. The ground floor fa?ade will be done in fieldstone, the upstairs and roof in wood shingle.

On the inside, five boat bays on the ground floor will store enough boats for eight crew teams and a rowing tank will assist the teams’ instruction and training. Upstairs, men’s and women’s locker rooms straddle a 2800-square-foot exercise room. All told, the facility totals over 35,000 square feet for Georgetown’s crews, and will cost $10 million to construct.

Though Georgetown crews had their own boathouse around the turn of the century, they’ve been sharing space for decades, most recently at Thompson Boat Center, a National Park Service facility located about a mile down river from campus between Georgetown Harbor and The Watergate. Currently, Georgetown shares Thompson’s with George Washington University crews and a number of high school teams. Like upperclassmen sick of sharing a dorm room, Georgetown rowers can’t wait to get their own place.

“There is a pride factor,” Johnson said in his unhurried, genteel cadence. “Thirty or 40 years ago when people were talking about a boathouse, it had a pride factor.”

And not only is the move about Georgetown’s pride. Construction of a new Swedish Embassy on the Georgetown waterfront will displace dozens of boats stored outdoors at Thompson’s, making Georgetown’s quick exit all the more crucial.

As the process of getting the various approvals required to begin construction progressed over the past months, that quick exit seemed to be under surprisingly little doubt. Various planning and historic preservation groups, such as the Old Georgetown Board, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, the Georgetown Waterfront Commission and the National Capital Planning Commission, gave their enthusiastic approval to the boathouse plans.

More surprisingly, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E, which has been notoriously kvetchy about past University matters, gave the boathouse its unanimous approval. ANC Commissioner Bill Starrels, who represents the waterfront area, was as surprised as anyone by the lack of opposition. “It’s especially unusual for University issues,” Starrels said. “That shows the value of the boathouse as far as the community is concerned.”

Georgetown University is no stranger to community opposition and protracted battles within the District’s bureaucracy; the past four years have seen a particularly contentious battle over approval of the University’s 10-year campus plan. So the boathouse’s well-lubricated glide through the approval process may have seemed like a surprising respite to planners accustomed to long hearings, deep compromises and razor-thin vote margins.

But that respite died when Georgetown University met Larry Schuette.

RIPPLES IN THE WATER

If you have crossed the Key Bridge into Washington, you have likely peered down on the Washington Canoe Club. It is hard not to give the green, shingled building a casual glance as your eyes scan the riverbank. Next year will mark 100 years since the Club’s first members built it from salvaged timbers. Since then, the building, with its clean lines and graceful towers, has survived numerous floods and ice floes. In the 1950s, it broke loose and shifted five feet down river before it could be jacked up and returned. The Club has readily survived all nature has thrown at it, but Schuette, its current president, isn’t afraid of Mother Nature. He’s afraid of the Mother of All Boathouses.

If the Washington Canoe Club has a backyard, the site where Georgetown University hopes to put its boathouse is it-and Schuette absolutely does not want a 35,000-square-foot boathouse in his club’s backyard. Not only is the facility too big, he says, but the boathouse’s construction and operation threatens the Canoe Club’s building.

“It’s a monstrosity,” said Schuette, whose other favorite words to describe the Georgetown boathouse include “overwhelming” and “behemoth.” “If they had built a boathouse the size of Thompson’s [which is 22,500 square feet],” he said, “I don’t think you would have seen people standing up and complaining.”

But since the University entered the latest stage in the approval process-seeking the permission of the D.C. Zoning Commission-plenty of people have stood up to complain. Besides the members of the Canoe Club, organizations related to the C&O Canal National Historical Park and the Capital Crescent Trail, which are both adjacent to the site, have joined in efforts against the boathouse, along with various other groups such as the Sierra Club. Enough people from these various groups spoke at three separate Zoning Commission hearings to fill nearly 400 pages of transcripts.

Ask Sally Blumenthal what she thinks of the Canoe Club, and she minces no words. As deputy associate regional director for the National Park Service, Blumenthal has undoubtedly dealt with planning adversaries long before the NPS joined the University for the boathouse project, and she isn’t one to kowtow to Schuette. “They’ve enjoyed that little piece of the world by themselves for 100 years, and they don’t like the idea of change,” she said.

Blumenthal, along with other supporters of the boathouse, have singled out Schuette as the leader of the anti-boathouse movement, if not its mastermind. “He is the reason that the other groups are involved,” Blumenthal said.

Meeting Schuette, it’s not hard to figure out why the project’s proponents chose him as the boathouse bogeyman. Tall, vigorous and genial, a receding hairline is the only hint of his impending middle age. By day an engineer, Schuette is a consummate talker; he clearly knows much about the boathouse project, and when he discusses it, it often seems as if his months of homework all try to come out at once. The first time I spoke to him, Schuette told me he wasn’t accustomed to the “adversarial style” of the approval process. That may have been true, but he has warmed quickly to it, becoming the boathouse’s loudest and most active foe.

The image of Schuette as mastermind, however, is complicated by the sheer complexity of the issues surrounding the boathouse. The Washington Canoe Club may be the group most immediately affected by the boathouse, but the issues it is concerned with do not necessarily overlap with those of the other groups. The C&O Canal Association is afraid the boathouse will damage the banks of the canal and block views of Key Bridge from its towpath. The Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail is afraid the boathouse will dangerously narrow the trailhead. Both of these groups, plus the Sierra Club, are upset that public parkland is being set aside for private use.

Public land for private use is a powerful argument, but a tricky one, especially for Schuette. The Washington Canoe Club sits on land owned by the Park Service, which is leased to the club; Blumenthal enjoys pointing out the irony of one private beneficiary of public land begrudging it for another. But if that irony is lost on Schuette, he doesn’t let on. He just lets the others do the talking.

In July, I arranged to meet at the boathouse site with Schuette, Defenders of Potomac River Parkland member Sally Strain, C&O Canal Association Environmental Chair Fred Mopsik, and Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail chair Ernie Brooks. There, Schuette never mentioned the land use issues, letting Strain, Mopsik and Brooks press that issue. The bedfellows that this controversy has produced may not exactly be strange, but they each keep to their side of the bed.

A MATTER OF OPINION

The quaint, homey picture of historic Georgetown that local merchants and developers readily encourage obscures the area’s less dainty history. Before there were theaters, shopping malls or Chadwick’s, the Georgetown waterfront was an industrial center, dotted with factories and crossed by railroad yards. What is now the new Loews cinema and Ritz-Carlton Hotel was once a towering incinerator; warehouses still sit under the shadow of the Whitehurst Freeway on Water Street.

Georgetown’s industrial legacy, though now solidly in the past, bears heavily on the boathouse’s future: the transportation lines that linked the old waterfront to the nation’s economy run right past the boathouse site. Up a 25-foot bank, the 150-year-old Chesapeake & Ohio Canal ends its 185-mile run from Cumberland, Md. Today the length of the Canal is preserved as a National Historic Park; its towpath is a favorite route of joggers, hikers and bikers. Down the bank lies the canal’s killer: the bed of the Georgetown Branch of the Baltimore & Ohio railroad. Since its abandonment in the 1980s, the line has been converted into a paved recreational trail, the Capital Crescent Trail, which runs along the river through the District before arching into suburban Maryland.

Despite the boathouse site’s proximity to history, recent development has repeatedly scarred it. Underneath the site, a seven-foot-wide sewer, the Potomac Interceptor, carries 65 million gallons of waste a day from Northern Virginia for treatment in D.C. When it was constructed during the 1960s, the site was cleared of native vegetation. Later that decade, workers laid an access road over the site for construction of the Three Sisters Bridge, a project stopped mid-construction by community protest.

Today, the site is green again, but it is not a beautiful green: Crabgrass covers most of the site, save for a few mud patches. Scraggly, misshapen trees and light brush make a fence between the site and the riverbank. Planks laid in the mud mark a path through the fence to a crag littered with trash, a favorite spot of fishermen. But from this spot on the crag, the view of the broad river is spectacular: the Key Bridge extends across the river to the left, framing the city; to the right lies the Three Sisters islands, nestled between the Potomac’s leafy banks.

Aesthetically, it is a spectacular site for Georgetown’s new boathouse, but its suitability was complicated by the simple fact that the land belonged to the National Park Service, not Georgetown University. But when the B&O line was abandoned in the early ‘90s, the railroad gave the University an important bargaining chip: a one-acre plot of riverfront property about a mile upstream from the current site, located deep within the Potomac Palisades, and accessible in perpetuity along the railbed.

According to Blumenthal, the Park Service wanted to prevent the University from building a boathouse on that more unspoiled piece of land through an exchange-Georgetown’s Palisades plot for the NPS site adjacent to the Canoe Club. The NPS and the University finally inked a deal in 1998 that agreed to a swap, provided that GU found the down river site suitable for a boathouse and that it could gain all the necessary permissions.

The deal between Georgetown University and the NPS has provided plenty of fuel for the opponents’ ire toward the boathouse. They consider the land swap corrupt; they claim it is an agreement that benefits the University far more than it benefits the Park Service or the public. That claim rests on the belief that the University’s threat to build a boathouse upriver was essentially empty-the permissions would have been impossible to get and subject to community opposition many times more intense than the present. Beyond that, says Schuette, but a boathouse at that site would be physically impossible, claiming the parcel is too steep, too shallow (only about 40 feet) and floods too often for a structure to be practical.

University Architect Alan Brangman denied Schuette’s claim that a boathouse was impossible on Georgetown’s upstream parcel. “You could not build this boathouse on that piece of land,” Brangman said, referring to the current design. He stressed that a different structure would be both practical and possible.

Possible or not, it is clear the University clearly comes out ahead with the current site: it is closer, better proportioned, easier to access, provides better vistas, and is visually aligned with the campus when viewed from the river. Whether the swap benefits the Park Service and the public is a much closer call: an upriver boathouse would certainly have been environmentally detrimental and a continual nuisance for users of the Capital Crescent Trail. But that would be the losing side of a bet on whether the University could manage to put a structure there.

But Brooks, the Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail chair, likes the odds well enough-he’s certain a boathouse would never be built upstream. Talking about the controversy over the land swap, Brooks said the affair reminds him of a scene from one of his favorite movies, the 1974 classic Chinatown. Harried detective Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, is driving through Southern California’s orange groves when he suddenly realizes he’s investigating a massive land scam. “That land deal is a con job!” Gittes shouts.

“That’s what I think about this whole situation,” Brooks said. “That land deal is a con job.”

“I have this dream,” he said, “where a guy comes up to me at the end and he says, ‘Forget about it, Ernie. It’s Georgetown.’”

CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS

For people who both move boats by dragging sticks through the water, paddlers and rowers manage to find plenty of points on which to differ: Paddlers paddle while facing forward; rowers row facing backwards. Paddlers tend to stay near shore; rowers occupy the middle of the river. Paddlers rarely go out in boats bigger than a two-man canoe; rowers’ eight-man boats can be up to 60 feet long.

And right now, says Coach Johnson, rowing is much more popular on the waters of the Potomac, a fact that threatens many paddlers. Several Washington Canoe Club members testified to that effect during the Zoning Commission hearings, including one paddler terrified a crew shell might accidentally ram into her canoe at speed.

Asked how much of the controversy can be attributed to a conflict between paddlers and rowers, Johnson replied, “all of it.” Many criticisms of the boathouse, he said, such as claims that the exercise equipment and rowing tanks should be located on campus, stem from misunderstandings from paddlers and other non-rowers. Johnson is hardly an interloper, hurling invective at the stodgy merely for invective’s sake. He grew up in Washington, in high school rowed at Potomac Boat Club (a rowing club located just downstream from the Washington Canoe Club) and coached at Georgetown in the ‘60s before leaving the area and returning as head coach in 1989.

“There are people at Washington Canoe Club that I’ve known forever and, to me, it’s a very unfortunately part of it,” Johnson said. “When it’s all said and done … I hope that we’re going to make good neighbors. I don’t take any of this personally; I am disappointed by it, and I am somewhat surprised by it.”

But to Schuette, Brooks and others, this is not about understanding Georgetown University and its rowers-they simply just don’t trust them. Schuette describes the University’s attitude as, “it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission”-a pattern of misrepresentation aimed at minimizing the size of the building in the eyes of the public, hoping they will get used to its mass once built.

“I trust none of what I hear,” Schuette said, “and I don’t even trust half of what I read.”

Schuette cited the growth of the building’s footprint: A document filed during approval of the land swap in 1997 with the D.C. State Historic Preservation Office provided that the “facility’s footprint or aggregate footprints are not more than 15,000 square feet for a building rising no more than 40 feet above grade.” By the time the first Zoning Commission hearing took place this May, the footprint had grown to nearly 20,000 square feet; the current plans have the building standing 54 feet above grade with a 23,000 square. foot footprint. Meanwhile the university released a drawing-still available at guhoyas.com, the athletic department’s official web site-that many consider misleading; it shows the boathouse from a perspective which obscures its west wing, making it seem much closer in size to the Canoe Club. Only after the Club requested a drawing with a straight-on perspective for a meeting late last year did Schuette and the rest realize the building’s true scale.

“They grew the building,” said Schuette, who also said that throughout the approval process, the University has stressed that the boathouse will be of average size for its peer universities. To rebut that claim, Schuette compiled a list of boathouse sizes for the other schools in Georgetown’s conference, the Eastern Association of Rowing Colleges. According to Schuette’s figures, only one existing boathouse (at Princeton) is of similar size; the other 14 are about half as big or smaller.

Brangman said those figures are misleading, since they do not include outdoor storage areas. Many facilities, he said, including Thompson, Potomac Boat Club and the Washington Canoe Club, have large fenced-in spaces outdoors for boat storage. Johnson said that Georgetown’s plans call for all storage indoors, allowing the public access to the river. No fences will be built around the facility. “None of that is sightly, none of that is appropriate, and none of that is safe,” Johnson said of the fences.

The building is only as big, Johnson said, as his “program” demands-the number of boats and the level of training facilities desired for the University’s eight crews. That program, he said, has been the same since talks began in the early ‘90s. “The last thing we wanted to do was have a facility that was underbuilt, that was not adequate for a long time to come,” Johnson said. “It just makes great sense.”

Schuette, though, questions that the rowing tank and exercise facilities are necessary within the boathouse. The exercise room, in particular drew Schuette’s attention because of its potential as an entertainment facility for alumni and student events. Move those to campus, he claims, and the facility could be scaled down appropriately. Johnson, though, sees this as another sign of a non-rower’s ignorance; the facilities need to be on site due to the way crews practice. “A football team or a lacrosse team doesn’t want to have the weight room a long ways away from where they do their other training,” Johnson said. “It’s just a far better way to train.”

But there’s little denying that this new boathouse is not just about building top-notch training facilities; it’s also about grandeur-symbolizing the eminent standing of both the crew program and the University. Even Johnson realizes that.

“Somebody comes by and they see the plans for this boathouse and they’re impressed with that, there’s no question about it,” he said. “I think it will be just a little bit more obvious in a new facility and a top-notch training situation that Georgetown believes in rowing and what rowing can do for the University, for the individuals, and in turn, what we can do in competition.”

THE FINAL DECISION

Today, after hours of testimony, thousands of pages of submissions, and dozens of letters to the editor, the boathouse’s future lies in the hands of the members of the D.C. Zoning Commission. In a meeting on July 31, the Commission approved part of the University’s request by zoning the boathouse parcel. However, the plans also require special exceptions to those zoning specifications, which the Commission may rule on in a meeting next Monday. In its ruling on those exceptions, the Commission more or less has carte blanche to resize the building at will by controlling how high it may be, how much square footage it may contain, or how close to the river it lies.

When and if the Commission gives its blessing, Brangman said the process is still not quite over. The building permit must be sought, an environmental assessment must be completed, and the funding must be finalized. Dave Sears, the athletic department’s Director of Development, confirmed that the University is “very close” to meeting its $10 million goal for construction, which includes a $3 million gift from Terry Adams, a longtime friend of Georgetown crew who has the right to name the facility.

A letter from the University’s attorneys last October to the Zoning Commission suggested that some donors had placed time limits on their gifts, making a quick approval all the more important. Sears would not confirm that, but did say such stipulations were not uncommon. “People who are giving to the boathouse are looking forward to seeing it done,” he said.

While Larry Schuette, Ernie Brooks, and the boathouse’s other opponents cling to the slim chance the Zoning Commission will move or reduce the boathouse, the University is confident its requests will be granted. “We feel we made a very good presentation; we feel we’ve answered the questions [the Zoning Commission] has put forward,” Johnson said.

Johnson hopes once the process is complete, the recent opposition proves only to be a “momentary glitch,” and that there’s no continuing animosity between the University and its possible future neighbors. “We want to be good neighbors and we want to fit in,” Johnson said. “We share the water, we share a lot of other interests …so there’s a little feeling that this not-in-my-backyard attitude … doesn’t fit.”

“But that’s where we are and that’s what we have to deal with.”



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