10 Year Plan: Then and Now

August 28, 2009

On a Saturday morning in late May, a handful of Georgetown administrators gathered at the nearby Duke Ellington School for a five-hour sparring match with the neighbors. It was the second meeting the University had held with community members to discuss its nascent 2010 campus plan—the blueprint that will dictate how Georgetown will be able to expand over the next decade—and it wasn’t pretty. Neighbors fretted over the potential traffic implications of possible new buildings and vented about the twin menaces (noise and trash) caused by undergraduates living off-campus.
If May’s meeting is any indication, it seems that the debate over the 2010 Campus Plan is poised to become a serious town-gown showdown. But just how much Sturm und Drang can one campus plan cause? Judging from Georgetown’s last 10-year plan, a hell of a lot.
The 2000 Campus Plan dramatically changed the University’s landscape, allowing for the construction of the new MSB building, the Davis Center for the Performing Arts, and the eventual new science building. But in order to get it passed, Georgetown was forced to wage a four-year battle, which included serious disputes with neighbors and a lawsuit filed against the District of Columbia Board of Zoning and Adjustment.
When Georgetown first proposed its 2000 Campus Plan, it had already promised to build the Southwest Quad, but had not completed the project. With over 1,000 undergraduates living in the community, neighbors were impatient to see the extra 780 on-campus beds added. So when the University requested upping its undergraduate enrollment cap by 389 students, Georgetown residents were incensed.
Citizens’ associations in Georgetown, Burleith, the Cloisters, Hillandale and Foxhall teamed up in opposition to the plan. Longtime resident and former Burleith Citizens’ Association President Bonnie Hardy said she had “never seen the neighbors so unified.”
The neighbors found sympathy from the Board of Zoning and Adjustment, the body that reviews Georgetown’s decennial campus plans. In May 2002, the BZA approved the 2000 Campus Plan—but with distressingly restrictive conditions. It ruled that Georgetown could not increase its enrollment cap whatsoever and would have to publicly disclose the number and type of student misconduct complaints it received, report violations of the Student Code of Conduct to parents or guardians, and record students’ license plate numbers.
The University needed an increase in undergraduate enrollment in order to finance new construction and felt that some of the BZA’s conditions violated the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, so it took the BZA to court.
On December 4, 2003—more than four years after the University started working with the community on the 2000 Campus Plan—Georgetown finally got a break. The D.C. Court of Appeals overturned the BZA’s harsh conditions, writing in its ruling that “such micromanagement of the University’s disciplinary code and of other educational activities by an agency whose sole expertise is in zoning is, in our view, inappropriate and unreasonable, especially when it can lead to such draconian sanctions.”
While this past May’s meeting may have seemed dishearteningly confrontational, it looks like the University has actually learned some lessons from the lengthy 2000 fight.
According to Hardy, the 2000 Campus Plan discussions got off to a sour start in large part because the University came in with fairly rigid plans and not much interest in community input. This time around, University administrators are making an effort to get feedback before finalizing anything (though some neighbors are now complaining that the current 2010 plans are too vague—sometimes you just can’t win).
Over the past decade, the University has also made attempts at easing off-campus friction. It created the Student Neighborhood Assistance Program hotline, instituted mandatory off-campus living orientation sessions, and began hosting monthly Alliance for Local Living meetings. Most importantly, though, it completed the Southwest Quad, increasing the amount of available on-campus undergraduate housing drastically.
But the University’s biggest advantage might be in what it’s not proposing this year: increasing the undergraduate enrollment cap. Instead, at the May meeting, administrators said they would like to increase graduate student enrollment, a proposition neighbors will probably find much more palatable.
That’s not to say the 2010 Campus Plan is going to be a breeze—even comparatively angelic graduate students aren’t always an easy sell. According to Justin Kopa (COL `03), who served on Georgetown’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission during the 2000 Campus Plan dust-up, when Georgetown tried to convert the Wormley School into a home for its Public Policy Institute, neighbors objected so vociferously that the University just dropped it.
But potential setbacks and querulous meetings aside, we’d do well to remember how far we’ve come since the last campus plan. The University has upheld its end of the bargain in easing off-campus tensions; if residents demand and the BZA approves unreasonable rules once again, Georgetown shouldn’t be afraid to fight back—hopefully it won’t come to that, but a little litigiousness served us well last time.

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