The federal appeals court’s ruling to reinstate GW housing restrictions has once again turned town-gown relations in Foggy Bottom into a staring contest – and GW should not blink.
The ruling upholds the District’s right to regulate the growth of the University, thereby rejecting the University’s argument that such regulation is unconstitutional because it infringes on academic freedom. This judgment overturns a previous ruling in District Court, which rejected the Board of Zoning Adjustment’s original mandate because it violated the University’s right to due process.
The mandate, now back in effect, states that GW should house 70 percent of undergraduate students on campus or outside Foggy Bottom – while not counting City Hall, Hall on Virginia Avenue, the Aston or Pennsylvania House in the on-campus totals, which are outside the “official” campus boundaries.
GW should house 70 percent of its undergraduate students on campus, a goal it has stated and even wishes to exceed. But the way in which D.C. hopes to prod the University into doing so more quickly is arbitrary and wrong. Prohibiting the construction of academic buildings until housing requirements are met is absurd. Any city intervention into an academic facility already zoned for such purposes is clearly an intrusion of the University’s right to academic freedom.
But many of GW’s claims of constitutional violations are thin at best. The District’s zoning boards are there to help ensure no landowners use their property in a way that negatively impacts those around them. The BZA must review proposed land uses and rule on a case by case basis. Blanket restrictions against an academic institution should not be lawful and can still be decided in the D.C. Court of Appeals.
Barring an appeal to the Supreme Court, unlikely due to the volume of cases the justices are requested to review each year, the University has little room to maneuver an alternate decision. It must use the avenues available to them – namely litigation currently stayed in the D.C. Court of Appeals – and GW should fight to count those “near-campus” residence halls toward the 70 percent goal.
Yes, GW has a reputation for being the bully next door among its neighbors. Yes, its president has been decried by community members as a ruthless businessman. And yes, a major metropolitan newspaper once dubbed it “The University that Ate Foggy Bottom.” But it is difficult to argue with warm bodies in beds, namely those in four certain residence halls. Allowing GW to count these four residence halls is not equivalent to appeasing the University.
While building restrictions tied to housing and requiring certain groups to live on campus may seem wrong, the reality is that GW can easily meet the city’s housing goals – counting the aforementioned halls along with construction projects underway – and has said most freshmen and sophomores must live on campus anyway. Through whatever avenues of the legal system that are left, GW must make the city face reality and allow GW to count the buildings it already uses and propose future projects with the neighborhood’s interests in mind. If they do not, it is up to the BZA to stop them in the application process – not after the fact – and both institutions can move forward.