Elliott School building faces protest

As Foggy Bottom residents continue a fight that could prevent GW from using the new Elliott School of International Affairs building in the fall, worries about when and how much of the facility will be finished by the start of the school year are surfacing.

Housing officials, including Associate Dean of Students Jan-Mitchell Sherrill, are planning this year’s spring lottery on the assumption that the nearly 200 beds in the Elliott School site will be ready for students in August and say GW is ahead of schedule on the construction. But at least one Elliott School official is not convinced.

“The builders are claiming they are right on schedule, but I am always a little cynical, and I don’t know if it will really be done,” said Harvey Feigenbaum, associate dean of the Elliott School.

Dean of Students Linda Donnels said finishing the residential portion of the complex is the first priority.

“With construction, there are factors that might impede it from being completed on time, such as construction and weather, but I know the residence part will be open,” she said.

The 12-story building at 1957 E St. will include eight levels of academic facilities and a residence hall, as well as a three-level, 200 space underground parking garage.

But even if GW breaks with past trends – Somers Hall at the Mount Vernon Campus, the Media and Public Affairs building and the Health and Wellness Center all opened late last year – neighborhood objection could force the project into a standstill.

At a Zoning Commission hearing Thursday night, GW officials faced off with local Advisory Neighborhood Commission members for the second session in two months, offering a number of concessions to reach a compromise with neighbors.

The Zoning Commission, which gives the green light for construction in the city, will decide March 11 whether GW can use the property, including the new upperclassman residence hall. The vote comes one day after the housing lottery for upperclassmen.

“I am hoping the zoning commissioners and various other commissioners will see what, to me, is the point for GW, and that’s to build and use this property for a number of positive reasons,” GW Senior Counsel Charles Barber said.

In a worst-case scenario, Barber said, the commission could rule that GW is violating the original building permit, making the building unavailable for GW use. Neighbors originally protested the building because GW attempted to grandfather-in the original owner’s building permit, which allowed for residential and shop use. A zoning commissioner agreed to those terms in fall 2000, but the Board of Zoning and Adjustment ruled the following June that the commissioner overextended his authority. The decision forced GW to compromise with neighbors.

“I think we have better arguments, and I think (the commissioners) are going to do the right thing,” Barber said. “I think our message and voice was heard, but you can’t be certain until the vote comes in.”

At Thursday’s meeting, GW offered to pay $500,000 toward feeding the area’s elderly and homeless, limit the new residence hall to upperclassmen and add retail space to the Elliott School complex – conditions it agreed to with the local neighborhood group, the West End Citizens Association, last August. Neighbors had agreed to not protest the new building.

Some Foggy Bottom residents said they see the GW compromises as self-serving, with no benefits for the community.

“As far as I am concerned GW is killing the local economy,” said Foggy Bottom resident Marilyn Rubin, an ANC member. She said she believes the shops GW is proposing to build in the lower level of the new building will be geared toward student needs.

ANC President Elizabeth Elliot agreed with Rubin, saying GW is not offering viable options to the community.

Elliot said the $500,000 subsidy is “woefully” inadequate compared to the profit that GW makes annually.

“There are other amenities that should be addressed that would be better and more beneficial than going after a statewide issue that can be dealt with in another way,” Elliot said. She cited a hardware store as an example of a more community-oriented item.

Barber said GW has done all that it can do.

“We have made the concessions we can make,” he said.

The neighbors have managed to delay Elliott School construction.
“Delays have been primarily due to concerns of the local citizens and the extent to which the building fits to their expectations, but we have tried to stress what a good neighbor we can be,” Feigenbaum said. “I think we have convinced them that we can be a plus rather than a minus.”

Rubin said she disagrees and does not see GW as a “plus.”

“(GW has) taken over this whole neighborhood,” she said. “They have said they are good neighbors, but they aren’t. They said years ago ‘we will own all of Foggy Bottom,’ and the city seems to be turning their heads to allow them.”

Feigenbaum said he believes GW has done all it can for the neighborhood.

“We do make efforts to reach out to our neighbors in activities, because we think the University has a responsibility, not only to the education of its students, but also in the community at large,” he said.

Feigenbaum said that as one of the top six international schools in the nation, the ESIA brings top cultural and international events to the community and makes them open to the public.

While GW and the different neighborhood associations await the final verdict of the zoning commissioners, the university moves forward with construction. GW Property Management and construction officials were unavailable to comment on the progress of construction.

Feigenbaum said students should not be worried if the complex does not open in time.

“If, for any reason, there should end up being problems, this is something the University takes responsibility for,” he said. “We are not going to let people sleep out on the street.”

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