BZA postpones campus plan vote

The Board of Zoning Adjustment postponed its vote on GW’s campus plan and asked for more details about how the University will house students on campus and suggested that the plan may pass with a stricter enrollment cap at a Dec. 12 meeting.

The board also asked the mayor’s Office of Planning to provide a clearer report of how much property GW owns in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood and a timeline of the University’s off-campus acquisitions.

Foggy Bottom Association President Michael Thomas said Sunday that GW has been deliberately unclear in the wording of its plan.

“There are some important areas where the University attorneys have been very, very careful to word things in a way that really doesn’t constrain the discretion of the University at all,” he said.

Thomas cited the University’s language about a property designated by the plan as Square 54, the current GW Hospital, as an example of vague language in the plan.

“They wanted to designate that that square could be used in whole in any of the functions,” he said. “That’s a big, critical, centrally located piece of property. If it later comes up in some other legal proceeding, the University says the BZA allowed us to do `x.’ If they do `x,’ you can’t attack it at all.

“That’s why it’s important for the BZA to understand what would happen in each of these cases, should they occur,” he said.

University Senior Counsel Charles Barber said after last month’s meeting that GW will respond to the BZA’s request for more details about its plans for student housing.

“It won’t be difficult to respond to those technicalities,” he said. “I think the board is being deliberate so we will continue to try to work with them.”

Thomas said he hopes the BZA considers a list of properties the FBA compiled and GW confirmed it owns in the neighborhood. He said he submitted the list with testimony in an earlier campus plan hearing.

“The problem in the District is the public land records are inaccurate or out of date,” said Thomas, explaining why the Office of Planning has trouble obtaining GW’s property information. “They go to the same sources you or I would. The University of course knows what it owns, they just won’t tell us.”

After reviewing all areas addressed in the GW plan, the BZA could pass the plan as it is written, reject it or pass it with conditions – the option University officials say is most likely to happen. Reid suggested at the meeting that the BZA could pass the plan with the condition that GW create a stricter enrollment cap, and possibly a cap on undergraduate enrollment.

“I think that would be one of the conditions if we decide to move forward,” Reid said. Reid said the BZA may ask GW to house a specific percentage of students on campus.

GW’s current campus plan provides a cap on total enrollment at 20,000 students but no limit on the undergraduate population.

Thomas said a total cap is ineffective, and a soft cap “based on a relationship to other things they’re doing and services they’re providing” would ensure GW and Foggy Bottom could handle increases in the student population.

Mitten suggested that GW should lower the total cap or implement an undergraduate cap.

She also said the University’s proposals to increase on-campus housing could be detrimental to the neighborhood if clear rules are not set.

“Going forward, we need to decide what kind of requirements for on-campus housing will eliminate the possibility that this campus is going to have an adverse impact on the surrounding community,” she said.

Included in the plan is a proposal to build 1,350 more on-campus beds, require freshmen and sophomores to live on campus by 2003 and house at least 70 percent of GW’s full-time undergraduate population on campus by 2005.

Mitten said many proposed beds are contingent on zoning permits to build new residence halls or the University converting buildings into residence halls. She said 500 beds are scheduled to be built where the GW Hospital stands – a new hospital across the street from the old one is scheduled to open in 2002 – and 650 beds at the School Without Walls property.

“I look at it as it’s 1,350, of which 1,150 are contingent,” Mitten said.

The last issue the board discussed was the University’s proposed “housing opportunity area,” where GW proposes to house its students in residence halls off campus along F Street. The plan states the area is comprised of “all areas on campus and existing off campus residence facilities owned or controlled by GW.”

“There’s a whole lot of uncertainty as to what that means,” Mitten said. She said that by designating buildings and properties in the housing opportunity area, the plan would encourage GW expansion into those areas.

“I think there’s a lot of ways that compel us to concentrate students on the campus, not just out of Foggy Bottom, because that does not address some of the other problems (such as parking and traffic),” Mitten said.

The BZA will meet again Feb. 6 to discuss GW’s plan and possibly vote on it.

“We are well aware that this particular case is a very complicated case,” BZA Chair Sheila Cross Reid said at the meeting. “Obviously it’s not something that is very easy to decide on, given all the issues that must be reviewed to reach a reasonable decision.

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