Ask five people at GW where the University’s boundaries are and you may get five different answers. Some believe the University ends where its property ends. Others believe the campus is housed between the four busts of George Washington.
What few people realize is there is a big difference between GW’s plan for expanding the campus and its official campus plan.
“The campus plan is a term of art,” said GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg.
GW is required to file with the District government an official plan every 10 to 15 years, outlining where the University is bordered and what it plans to do with the property it owns within that region. GW is in the process of evaluating those questions and is expected to release its new plan for the next 10 years by next month.
But even as the community waits to see what the University has in store for its property, community officials are expressing concern about the University’s recent expansion into historic Foggy Bottom and its plans to accumulate more local property.
“The George Washington University is the second-largest land owner in the District of Columbia.”
That fact has been repeated many times. Prospective students hear it as they enter the trolley – and previously the double-decker bus – while looking at the University and its surrounding city. With the recent purchases of the former Mount Vernon College and Premier Hotel, GW has upgraded its presence in the city.
When the University last took an in-depth look at its campus in 1985, many things were different. Most of today’s college students were getting their feet wet in kindergarten and the early years of elementary school. Few students had chosen GW as their college of choice. Perhaps even Trachtenberg had not considered GW as his next institute of higher learning. He was president of Hartford College at that time.
The 1985 campus plan depicts a different University. Names like Calhoun, Everglades and Milton adorned residence halls now honoring Marquis de Lafayette, William Fulbright and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
But new names are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the University’s changes. Since that time, new buildings have popped up within the campus’s boundaries. And, to the worry of many local residents and community politicians, the University is pushing the boundaries outward.
At community forums during the past months, local residents have expressed anger about University expansion. The Premier Hotel purchase sparked angry words from Watergate residents. Plans for a new GW Hospital have upset some local residents who feel the location is not ideal and who are concerned about traffic congestion.
What has surprised many people is a recent decision by the University to request a tax-exempt bond from the D.C. government for up to $440 million, partially for real estate and construction projects. The City Council is expected to hear testimony about the bond this week, and both sides said they expect GW will receive approval.
The low-interest bond will help the University stabilize the rates it is paying on loans and turn taxable debt into tax-exempt debt from the D.C. program, said Catherine Lynch, associate vice president for Treasury Management.
“The decision to approach the District to use their revenue bond program is part of restructuring of the debt side of our balance sheet,” she said.
Lynch said less than half of the money is to support a series of capital projects, including the Health and Wellness Center, the School of Media and Public Affairs building and smaller purchases and improvements at both the Foggy Bottom and Mount Vernon campuses.
But local residents say they are outraged by the University attempting to get what they see as “special treatment” from the District as GW takes over more community property.
“(The District government) is rewarding them by giving them these tax-exempt bonds that let them have a lower interest rate,” said Ellie Becker, Foggy Bottom Association president. “You and I can’t get these rates when we’re buying a house.”
The Advisory Neighborhood Commission, which weighs issues of zoning and community interest, passed a resolution Tuesday asking the city not to give GW the bond until it meets certain requirements, including a cap on undergraduate admissions and more student housing on campus.
“The University has a lot of power and is a very large presence in the District,” said Barbara Spillinger, the ANC chair. “We’re trying to preserve our community. If the University wants to expand, we hope they’ll do it somewhere else.”
But Lynch said what the University is doing is both legal and adheres to GW’s educational mission.
“It’s absolutely an appropriate use of tax-exempt bonds,” she said. “It’s going to put the University in a lot better position to provide top-notch education.”
Crossing the lines
As part of the upcoming campus plan, the University will explain its prediction for the area within its borders, between 24th and 19th streets, F Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.
The new campus plan may not reflect a lot of the real changes the University is undergoing. Because many changes are outside of its boundaries, the University does not need to list recent acquisitions such as the Aston, the Hall on Virginia Avenue and a block of space on E Street, said Eve Dubrow, senior advisor for operations in the Office of the Vice President and Treasurer and the campus plan project manager.
“When we purchase outside the boundaries of the campus plan, we are purchasing as a private property owner,” Dubrow said “We have rights just like any other private property owner.”
What concerns many community residents is not GW’s expansion within the campus, but its increasing presence in the neighborhood that surrounds campus. In recent months, the University purchased the Aston and now fills the building with students. The community members say they have little voice concerning the University’s expansion.
“What they do inside the campus plan is subject to strict review,” Spillinger said. “But what they do outside is not regulated.
“We try to cope with the University’s invasion into our community, but most times we don’t know what they’re going to do until it’s done,” she said.
But Dubrow said the University is following the letter of the law, only using property for approved purposes, such as housing students on residential land or placing offices on business property.
“As long as we make use of it in the way it is zoned, we are in the range of any private property owner,” she said.
Bernard Demczuk, assistant vice president of Government Relations, said although the University is expanding, there are no plans to move west of 24th Street, into the historic Foggy Bottom district.
“President Trachtenberg has had more than 100 opportunities to buy west of 24th Street, and he’s never done it,” Demczuk said.
Many community activists expect the University to expand its official boundaries when they file the new campus plan by year’s end, including the housing and educational properties outside of the current area.
“What we assume is that they’re going to expand the campus boundary to include the property they’ve bought,” Spillinger said. “In some cases, it might help if they expanded. It would improve standards.”
But Dubrow said there is no reason to expand the borders.
“We’re using the property in a `matter of right’ way,” she said. “We’re doing things outside of the campus plan that we’ve done forever and will continue to do.”
Trachtenberg said the University will keep the same boundaries in the next campus plan.
“We are honoring the campus plan as the city has drawn it,” he said. Richard Sheehey, a GW graduate and ANC commissioner, said the University should not be using its tax-free status to buy property outside of the campus plan.
“We need to make GW define its campus,” Sheehey said. “Inside its campus, it should have special privileges. But outside of the campus, it should not.”
Spillinger said although the properties are being used for their intended purpo
se, the city is taking a financial blow because the property is off the tax roll.
“We’re all taxpayers, so if all this land is taken off the tax rolls, it’s hard for the District to consider a tax reduction,” she said.
Room and board
Many community residents see the University undergraduate admissions expanding out of control and administrators buying property to keep up. For this reason, ANC commissioners keep requesting a cap on enrollment as an essential part of a dialogue between the University and community.
In its request to the D.C. City Council as part of its opposition to the revenue bond, the commission recommended limiting the number of full-time students at Foggy Bottom to 6,400 for the fall 2000 academic year, with 200 less the next year and 6,000 students for the year 2002 and after.
They also want at least 80 percent of students to be housed in University-operated housing within the boundaries of the campus plan.
“When the students go into the (Hall on Virginia Avenue), that works much better than when they move into Columbia Plaza,” Spillinger said.
Becker said the added number of undergraduates on campus has made living in some of the local apartment buildings unbearable for older residents.
“The increase of enrollment is pushing the students into the neighborhood at an alarming degree,” she said. “How many bodies can you put in a limited area?”
University officials said housing students on campus is one of their priorities too.
“It has always been the intent of the University to house its students in University-operated buildings so we can monitor and supervise the students better,” Demczuk said.
Demczuk said the West End apartment building, which was purchased by the University and is now being rented, may eventually become a residence hall.
As the University and community leaders head into battle over the campus and its expansion, both seem disappointed with the way things have started.
Demczuk led a series of meetings with members of the ANC and several community groups as part of GW’s required review of the campus plan with the community. Those talks broke down this summer, and each side blames the other.
“Bernard Demczuk had organized a couple of meetings to talk about the campus plan, but we talked about everything but the campus plan,” Spillinger said.
“We wanted to listen before we put something on paper,” Demczuk said as to why residents did not receive a draft of the campus plan. “We wanted to have a dialogue and put their concepts in the physical plan.”
The series of meetings featured several University vice presidents, discussing various topics, including GW’s academic mission and housing plans. But Demczuk said the talks broke off before they got to the more meaty subjects in the campus plan.
Becker said she will vigorously contest any statement the University makes alleging it consulted the community before developing the plan.
Trachtenberg said the ongoing fight between the University and its neighbors is not hurting the institution, just the community.
“The problem is how you get into a constructive, positive, rational conversation with your neighbors that allows them to have peace of mind and allows the University to mature in a thoughtful way,” he said.
For now, the community is still gearing up for a fight. The fact that they probably won’t win has not deterred them.
“You do fight, you don’t always win, but you do make changes that are helpful,” Becker said. “You get small victories.”