Staff Editorial: Ditch campus plan

The campus plan does not work. The District government should throw it out. Ostensibly a way for community leaders and University officials to set out plans for future campus development, the campus plan promotes an adversarial system that needlessly involves the government in a dispute between two private parties.

The acrimonious disputes under the campus plan system harm the neighborhood and GW. Not once in recent memory have Foggy Bottom residents prevailed in stopping any University expansion project. The best they have done is to slow construction, which only increases the cost of GW fulfilling its original goals – costs that are then passed on to students. The campus plan system promotes discord rather than discussion and should be replaced with a system that forces GW and its neighbors to cooperate.

Foggy Bottom residents are fearful of University expansion because they believe it will destroy the character of their community. Their fears are understandably rooted in dishonesty surrounding the last campus plan and disputes over the current one. They see a University promising to stay within set boundaries and then buying up property well beyond them. If the main concern is to protect the character of a community, then that has been lost during arguments against the Elliott School of International Affairs, Aston Hall, Hall on Virginia Avenue and other venues that do not destroy the make-up of Foggy Bottom simply by carrying the GW logo and housing GW students.

Still, GW should continue to be a good neighbor and not encroach on the historic Foggy Bottom neighborhood. Maintaining the area’s unique qualities benefits residents and the University by adding character to the Foggy Bottom experience that apartment buildings and residence halls lack.

The campus plan runs counter to the freedom to buy and sell property, one of the most fundamental Constitutionally-protected rights in our system of government. The University, as a private entity, has the same rights as any other person, corporation or non-profit organization in real-estate transactions. Other non-profit organizations are not unreasonably restricted in their property purchasing and use decisions. If Habitat for Humanity bought several townhouses and decided to house low-income families there, or the Whitman-Walker Clinic used Foggy Bottom properties to house AIDS patients, such a move would doubtlessly change the character of the neighborhood. But no one could reasonably argue that those groups should be restricted in their activities because of who they seek to help.

Attaching labels to organizations based on who they serve sets up a system in which government can freely discriminate simply because a community objects to alterations to its demographics. Such a system grants greater rights to community members already in place at the expense of others with just as much right to buy and use property in the neighborhood as those already living there.

Scrapping the current unworkable system and not replacing it with a better scheme would be irresponsible. GW and its neighbors should agree to form a Foggy Bottom Planning Group with representatives from both camps. The group would discuss upcoming expansion projects and the plans for GW’s future. GW and the neighborhood would agree to abide by the planning group’s decisions, and this agreement would be legally enforceable. This means if either side ignores its responsibilities, the other can sue in court, seek arbitration or use some other agreed upon means of resolution. But instead of judges ruling on the minutiae of construction projects, the only issue would be whether GW or its neighbors lived up to the agreement.

This new method takes away the adversarial system of arguing before a zoning board or a judge and forces the parties to cooperate from the outset. Involving the government in University planning is unnecessary. Other cities – most notably Boston, which has several colleges and universities – get along fine without a government-mandated campus plan system.

Under a cooperative system, the planning group should review individual site plans before construction starts to iron out details that may be objectionable. And any agreement establishing the group should insist the parties use the group as the primary means of working out differences. After differences are settled, then zoning variances and permits can be obtained, and construction can proceed swiftly and economically.

The University will still formulate development plans, and neighbors can still voice their objections. But this interaction would occur in a cooperative atmosphere free from adversarial jockeying.

Working together to preserve the Foggy Bottom neighborhood will accomplish much more than bickering before courts and zoning boards. Replacing the current system with one that does not involve the government and still upholds the established rights of the involved parties can make traditionally strained relations between GW and its neighbors more harmonious.

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