Zoning Board delays ruling on ESIA

GW is “brainstorming” changes to its Elliott School plans after the D.C. Zoning Commission decided Monday that the University has not offered enough amenities to the surrounding neighborhood.

Foggy Bottom residents also argued at the Zoning Commission meeting Monday that students should not be permitted to live in the residential portion of the 1957 E St. building, although commission members said they have no power to enforce such a rule.

The meeting marked the latest chapter in an ongoing resident fight against the building, which has been under construction since May 2000 and is slated to open in time for school in September.

University Senior Counsel Charles Barber said the Zoning Commission seemed to accept the plans for the building, although it asked for more amenities. Barber said the University is “brainstorming” and will resubmit a proposal later this month.

The two-year history of the building includes building permit problems that caused a six-day construction halt and three Advisory Neighborhood Commission discussions in the last five months.

Zoning Commission Chair Carol Mitten said she was “not satisfied” that the University has not offered the community enough for D.C. that to allow the University to have the extra space that comes with building a multi-use building.

Mitten also said she agreed with residents that students should not be able to live in the building and that the commission is powerless to force them out because of the D.C. Human Rights Act, which prohibits discriminating against a particular group of people for housing.

“It’s frustrating that the University can expand outside of the campus boundaries, but legally there is no remedy,” she said. “There is no way for the Zoning Commission to prohibit students from using (the ESIA building). I know the community is frustrated, but that’s the way it is.”

The zoning rules for the project, set by original site owners Associated General Contractors of America, stipulate that GW must provide these amenities for the law to allow construction.

But there is no specific amount stated, which University Senior
Counsel Charles Barber called “frustrating.”

One current GW offer is a donation of $500,000 to a currently unformed foundation for feeding poor and elderly D.C. residents. The donation was part of an agreement GW made with the West End Citizens Association, in which two West End neighbors agreed to support the University’s plans for the ESIA building in exchange for:

– retail space in Mitchell Hall and the new building

– allowing only juniors, seniors and Honors Program students to live in the building

– preventing trucks from loading or unloading during rush hour to reduce traffic

The $500,000 donation would have gone to Sholl’s Colonial Cafeteria, but the restaurant closed its doors Dec. 5 citing post-Sept. 11 economical pressures. The money may go to a new foundation GW hopes to create.

“I’m worried about a donation to a foundation that does not yet exist,” Mitten said.

Barber said the agreement with WECA, a two-member organization, stipulated that University officials and neighborhood residents would serve as the board of directors of the foundation.

Advisory Neighborhood Commission Chair Elizabeth Elliott said she does not think WECA or its agreement with GW represents the neighborhood. She added that the ANC, an elected D.C. governmental agency that represents local interests at hearings and meetings, was not approached with a similar proposal.

“We’ve been open to the University from the beginning and (GW has) chosen to do an end run on this by signing on with this agreement with another community group,” Elliott said. “I think (GW has) made a career of disparaging the ANC and splitting the community up, and they’ve done a good job of it.”

Barber said other amenities provided by the University include using “local, small, disadvantaged businesses” and D.C. employees in the ESIA construction.

Elliott and Zoning Commission member Anthony Hood said they do not think this should be included as an amenity, as it is required by a revenue bond GW took out for construction of the building. The bond allows GW to borrow money at lower interest rates and save money on the project.

Elliott said the local business and employee stipulation should not be counted twice.

Zoning Commission member Peter May and Barber disagreed.

“The fact is, by authorizing GW to utilize and build this building, the District gets these benefits,” Barber said.

In the original proposal for the new building, the residential portion included condominiums for long-term residents, not students. The rest of the building was to be the headquarters for American General Contractors.

When GW took over the project two years ago, they replaced the condominiums with a residence hall for students.

“They’re trying to pretend it’s not a case about modifying the original order that came down,” Elliott said after the meeting.

Mitten acknowledged this fact, but said there was nothing the commission could do about it.

She said any efforts to prohibit students could bring lawsuits because students are a “protected class” under the D.C. Human Rights Act and cannot be discriminated against on the basis of their enrollment in a university.

Elliott disagreed, saying that “someone’s giving Carol Mitten bad legal advice.”

The same point about the Human Rights Act was used as a central argument in GW’s lawsuit against the campus plan restrictions that forced the University to house 70 percent of students on campus or outside of Foggy Bottom by fall 2002. The University argued that such prohibitions are not legal because they discriminate against students.

Barber said Mitten “rightly” noted this.

Elliott said she thought the “subtext” in the meeting was that the University was going to sue again unless the Zoning Commission gave
GW “what they want.”

Elliott said she was not pleased with the entire process.

“I question the whole process at this point, I really think it’s a dog and pony show,” she said. “They may wait until after the ribbon cutting to make a decision. It’ll be interesting.”

The University has until March 22 to resubmit its proposal. Interested parties like the ANC and other community members have until April 5 to respond to the University’s plans.

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