Columbia Plaza residents, GW at odds

Relations between some Columbia Plaza residents and GW remain strained after a District judge rejected a lawsuit last month alleging the University illegally leases most of the Virginia Avenue complex.

In December 2002, the Columbia Plaza Tenants’ Association filed suit against GW, alleging that the University and Columbia Plaza Real Estate entered into an illegal agreement without properly informing residents. The association claims that GW controls the majority of the units and has turned the complex into a “de-facto student dormitory.”

A D.C. Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit “with prejudice,” meaning the tenants’ association could not file the suit again.

“The judge was convinced that the case was absolutely useless,” said Associate General Counsel Linda Schutjer, who handled the case for GW.

Schutjer said the University only rents 28.55 percent of the complex’s 800 units. She said GW has no current plans to expand its lease, which was inked in December 1999.

Marilyn Rubin, president of the Columbia Plaza Tenants’ Association, said the group has yet to discuss whether it will take further legal action against GW.

Last month’s ruling angered some Columbia Plaza residents, who said GW’s practice of leasing apartments to students has disrupted the building’s once-pleasant ambiance.

Residents associated excessive noise, garbage in the hallways and alcohol-related problems with the presence of students in the building. They said GW should stop leasing apartments to students in Columbia Plaza.

The University currently leases the apartments primarily to law and medical students and upperclassmen.

“If you have to be up at 6 a.m. for a job, you don’t want kids coming in at 3 a.m.,” Rubin said.

Ron Cocome, Foggy Bottom Association president and former Columbia Plaza tenant, said residents are not upset with students but rather with the University for leasing them space in off-campus buildings.

“Students should be able to enjoy life comfortably with their peers, but the University has prevented that,” he said.

Cocome compared GW to a real estate corporation and called its policy of housing students off campus “greedy and irresponsible.”

While living in Columbia Plaza, Cocome said he witnessed underage drinking by students and smelled marijuana on more than one occasion. “One night I walked outside my door and found two drunk girls urinating in the hallway,” he said. “This is what you have when people have no authority figure.”

Many non-students living in Columbia Plaza had a more positive outlook on the situation.

Resident Rita Champagne, advertising manager at the Foggy Bottom News, said she sees an improvement in the community.

“Four or five years ago (the students) seemed to forget I was a resident. Now I see a better understanding between the residents and students,” she said.

“I was personally never bothered by the students,” said Ron Lekher, a former Columbia Plaza resident.

Although the tenants’ association claimed to speak for everyone in the complex, it’s out of touch with most of the residents, Lekher said.

Students living in the apartments said complaints by some residents are unfounded.

“I never really noticed any raucous behavior at Columbia Plaza,” sophomore Micki Keyser said.

Michael Akin, a GW Government Relations assistant, said Columbia Plaza residents who are upset with GW are an uncooperative minority.

“They are really not representative of the community as a whole and don’t realize that we bring many benefits to the community,” he said.

The tensions in Columbia Plaza mirror those in other parts of Foggy Bottom between longtime residents and students. In the past few years, the University has initiated new programs, such as the FRIENDS group, to promote better relations between residents and students.

“We’re trying to work through bad blood through the FRIENDS group,” said Bernard Demczuk, assistant vice president for D.C. affairs, who added that the group’s purpose “is to improve relations with Columbia Plaza and Foggy Bottom”.

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