GW, residents debate bond request

Students and administrators defended GW’s request for a $380-million tax-exempt bond at a hearing Thursday before the D.C. City Council’s Committee on Economic Development.

The public hearing provided a forum for Foggy Bottom residents to voice their concerns and for GW representatives to detail the benefits of the University’s requested bond, on which the committee will vote Nov. 2.

If accepted by the committee, the $380-million industrial revenue bond, of which $360 million would receive tax-exempt status, will refinance and refund existing University debt and help finance 18 current and future campus projects. Those projects include the construction of the Health and Wellness Center, the School of Media and Public Affairs building and Mount Vernon athletic facilities, the purchase of the Hall on Virginia Avenue and renovation of the Marvin Center, Gelman Library and the University Club.

While tax-exempt bonds provide the University with “access to lower-cost debt,” D.C. benefits from the business, job opportunities and community service GW brings to the city, GW Vice President and Treasurer Lou Katz said before the hearing.

Students outlined GW’s efforts in community service, cultural diversity and financial assistance to D.C. at the hearing.

Student Association President Phil Meisner asked “on behalf of students” for the committee to approve the University’s request. Jeff Marootian, SA vice president of Community Affairs, discussed GW’s volunteer services. Ritu Singh, president of Alpha Kappa Alpha, summarized the history of the predominantly black sorority “dedicated to service to all mankind.” Freshman Twenty-first Century Scholar Ngar Yu discussed what GW has meant to her life.

Financing GW development projects “benefits the whole community,” Yu said.

Councilwoman Charlene Jarvis, chairwoman of the committee, took a phone call and conversed with a colleague while students gave testimony.

She encouraged students to meet Foggy Bottom residents in the audience and participate in neighborhood outreach. Steven Mandelbaum, a commissioner of the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission and a GW student, testified that a majority of Foggy Bottom residents “support efforts of GW and think that GW is a good neighbor.”

Mandelbaum said the ANC’s request to deny the bond request until the University agrees to reduce its undergraduate enrollment to 6,000 and house 80 percent of students within University borders – which excludes HOVA, the Aston, the Dakota and Riverside Towers – is “unreasonable and unproductive.”

Reverend John Wimberly of Western Presbyterian Church testified that GW students unfairly are characterized as rowdy drinkers – a common complaint from Foggy Bottom residents seeking to stop GW expansion. Students are “precious, loving and lovable” Wimberly said.

Foggy Bottom resident Dale Barnhart said the conflict between GW and the community over expansion made Foggy Bottom a “demographic ghetto.” He said residents are sometimes “over-emotional.”

Dorothy Miller, another Foggy Bottom resident and an ANC commissioner, supports the failed resolution to reduce the undergraduate population and house students within campus boundaries. She said Mayor Anthony Williams’ decision to pass the bond issue to the committee is “powerfully disappointing.”

“What is good for GWU has only been good for GWU,” Miller said. She said President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is “in the business of real estate” rather than education. She asked the committee to hold off its Nov. 2 vote until a study proves the benefits the bond will have on the neighborhood.

ANC Chairwoman Barbara Spillinger compared conflict between residents and the University to the battle between David and Goliath. She said students participate in “unseemly behavior” and said she objected to the University’s “buying up of our community.”

Mandelbaum, the only dissenting vote in the ANC’s recommendation to restrict GW enrollment and off-campus housing, said he would have been “hard-pressed to find a problem” with the resolution if the terms for housing had been more reasonable. ANC members had a good opportunity to gain ground on important issues, Mandelbaum said. But he said residents were unreasonable to expect GW to house 80 percent of its students within campus boundaries.

Assistant Vice President in the Office of Government Relations Bernard Demczuk was unavailable for comment.

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