City on a Hill: Politicking the Campus Plan

March 31, 2011

With the Zoning Commission’s hearings for the 2010 Campus Plan only weeks away, students may have noticed some serious saber-rattling from D.C.’s legislative branch. In early January, Councilmember Jack Evans (D—Ward 2), whose jurisdiction includes Georgetown, publicly announced that he was “disappointed” in the plan. Evans’ colleague, Mary Cheh (D—Ward 3), has gone even further, recently promising to testify against the Campus Plan during the upcoming Zoning Commission hearings.

That’s not exactly the vote of confidence you’d like from local elected officials when you’re heading into a contentious zoning battle. But does Georgetown have reason to fear that the traditionally friendly relationship it has enjoyed with the District government could be starting to sour?

Although the public pronouncements may seem bellicose, the University can expect little genuine animosity from its direct representative, Evans. Sure, Evans has spent plenty of time at public meetings commiserating with Georgetown and Burleith residents and slamming the University’s plan, particularly the provision to dramatically increase the number of graduate students. But that’s about as involved as he’s been willing to get with the issue.

When Cheh announced that she would be testifying on behalf of her constituents in Foxhall, Evans said he would “absolutely not” be joining her. Because the Council is in the process of confirming Zoning Commissioners, Evans said, it would be “inappropriate” for a councilmember to testify at a Zoning Commission hearing. But even without confirmation-related conflicts of interest, Evans probably would not have taken up the neighbors’ cause in an official context. When Burleith residents asked him to testify against the plan back in October, he told them that if he got involved with the Campus Plan skirmish, he would be obligated to testify for any Ward 2-related zoning hearing.

Evans’ unwillingness to take up the neighbors’ cause whole hog is indicative of his record on town-gown relations and development in general. During Evans’ last re-election campaign in 2008, Georgetown University President John DeGioia praised him as “an extraordinary colleague.” And although Evans got his political start as a community activist—co-founding the Ward 2 Democrats and acting as a Dupont Circle ANC commissioner—he has more recently garnered a reputation for being a reliable friend of development. Since becoming chair of the powerful Finance and Revenue Committee in 1999, Evans has become known for championing major development projects like Nationals Stadium and the Verizon Center.

Although Evans won his 2008 re-election bid handily, the big issue challenger Carey Silverman raised was whether or not Evans was still in touch with neighborhood concerns. Echoing neighbors’ criticism of the campus plans in public meetings is an easy way for Evans’ to shore up his neighborhood-issues bona fides. But if that’s all he’s willing to do, it’s hard to see his criticism of the plan as anything more than political posturing.

Cheh, on the other hand, has been much more militant than Evans. Although she doesn’t have direct jurisdiction over Georgetown, she does represent some neighborhoods whose residents are agitated about the plan, such as Foxhall and the Palisades. Cheh said concerns from her constituents about the University’s proposed loop road and the increase in graduate students are the major reasons why she will be joining neighborhood groups as a “party in opposition” to the plan. And campus plan testimony isn’t the only threat Cheh has leveled against Georgetown—she has also recently announced plans to introduce a Payment-in-Lieu-of-Tax program that would force local universities and other major non-profits to partially compensate the city for foregone property tax revenue.

While Cheh has been much more willing to take a firm stand against the University, neither she nor Evans is really putting their money where their mouth is. Politicking aside, probably the biggest single reason why the University needs a positive rapport with the Council is access to municipal bonds.

On that crucial aspect, the relationship seems to be humming along smoothly. Last November, the Council unanimously approved $90 million in tax-exempt bonds to fund the construction of the new science center and other infrastructure projects. At a March 16 Foxhall Community Citizens’ Association meeting, neighborhood firebrand Stephen Brown, of the infamous, pressed Cheh to use the bonds as leverage against the University. Cheh politely declined that suggestion.

With emotions running high about the Campus Plan, it may seem like Georgetown is under siege, but fear not—our friends in the Wilson Building still support us when it comes to the important issues.

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