The University appealed to the D.C. Zoning Commission Tuesday to extend Health and Wellness Center hours. The GW proposal also contains a request to sell HWC memberships to 3,000 GW community members, including Foggy Bottom residents, alumni and parents.
The board will now hear public comment on the measure and decide on the zoning changes next month.
At the hearing, University officials said it was filing for appeal because the extended hours and increased community membership will help counter student alcohol consumption, increase and spread out times of facility use and improve the quality of intramural sports.
“We want to realize the vision of the Health and Wellness Center that we intended in 1998 that includes the whole community,” Charles Barber, senior attorney for the Office of the Vice President and General Counsel, said at the hearing.
Officials want to extend hours of operation to 1 a.m. every day of the week except for Saturdays when it would close at 11 p.m. Current hours are restricted to 10 p.m. Monday-Friday and 8 p.m. on Sundays.
In 1998 the Board of Zoning Adjustment granted the University permission to build the facility if it agreed to comply with zoning regulations – capping membership to students and staff and restricting it to certain operating hours. The restrictions were designed to address concerns by the Advisory Neighborhood Commission about an increase in traffic and noise.
“The reason we want to open our doors is because we want people to support our University and this is one way to create good will within the community,” Barber said.
At the hearing, officials said substantially below its capacity.
The University gathered its data through GWorld swiping and through manual head counting during a recent weeklong study. According to University statistics, the facility had 243 users during its peak hours compared to its maximum holding capacity of 1,973.
Zoning Commission members questioned the calculations, saying the numbers were based on maximum fire-code holding capacity and not on actual user capacity. Peter May, a Zoning Commission member, said a basketball court that accommodates only 10 players is not at its fire-code capacity, but fulfills its actual user capacity.
May said the graphs provided were not accurate and should reflect a cap at around 600 or 700 patrons rather than 1,973
“This is a self-induced problem of overbuilding this facility,” ANC Chair Elizabeth Elliot said. “The University should market to itself (to increase facility use).”
Barber said the under-use was not intended.
“When we designed this building we were fairly new at this,” Barber said. “We did not project this under-use.”
John Fondersmith of the District Office of Planning said his greatest concern is that increased use of the facility would come at the same time as the student use peak. He also warned against the possibility of turning the Center into a semi-commercial facility.
Like current staff and faculty, community members would pay $295 for an entire year’s access to the facilities, a fee significantly less expensive than other area health clubs.
University officials have yet to determine the details of the membership process or geographical boundaries of the “community.”
Sports Club LA General Manager Jim Bunnell said the University has an unfair advantage over other commercial businesses because of its non-profit status.
“We are not opening doors to just anyone who wants,” Barber said. “This is only an effort to create support for the University.”
Some students said they are eager to see the facility increase its hours even at the expense of letting more people use the facility.
“I think it is great that they are trying to grant community members access to the facilities because it will integrate the University better into the community,” freshman Vinicius Portugal said.
Other students said they do not want to see the center open to the larger community.
“Extending membership to 3,000 more people will create a lot of problems at the gym because there aren’t enough machines as it is and the lines for the cardio machines are always at least a 20-minute wait,” senior Denise Sylvester said.
Zoning Commission Chair Carol Mitten criticized the University’s claim of extending hours in order to reduce alcohol consumption.
“If the University is trying to combat alcohol usage, why would it choose to close at 11 o’clock on a Saturday night, while the rest of the week it stays open till 1 a.m.?” Mitten said. “This is the time when students are most likely to be drinking.”
University officials said Saturdays are the facility’s least active days of the week, and it would not make sense to stay open late without current use of the HWC during this time.
Mary Jo Warner, senior associate director of athletics and recreation, said extended HWC hours would accommodate all of the University’s recreational sport activities and would allow for more game time.
“We want to duplicate what is already there in the Smith Center,” Barber said. Currently the Smith Center stays open till 1 a.m. Monday-Thursday.
With the extended HWC hours, the Smith Center could be closed earlier and allow for renovations to help it better fit the needs of intercollegiate sports.
At the hearing, University representatives said GW remains one of the only universities that does not allow alumni and community members access to its health centers. It has received complaints from parents disappointed with the BZA’s decision to limit membership.
Some students and faculty members have expressed their concern that the University is only expanding membership to reap a greater profit.
“I think the University is just trying to get more money for itself,” freshman Anna Wyhs said.
Seven proponents and three opponents from the community spoke before the commission.
“I am a coach potato myself,” said Donald Lincoln, a 67-year-old resident of the Watergate East. “But when I heard of the opportunity (to receive membership) I decided I would get involved with my physical fitness.”
The Zoning Commission will vote on the appeal at a public meeting on Jan. 13.
“We are hopeful,” Barber said. “We are trying to do what we think is a good thing.”