Students may be able to exercise in the Health and Wellness Center until 1 a.m. if the city approves a GW request to allow the facility to keep longer hours.
The center currently closes at 10 p.m. on all days except Sunday, when it shuts its doors at 8 p.m. GW petitioned the D.C. Zoning Commission last week to change an order that set the center’s hours when it opened in 1998.
“The longer hours are certainly requested by the University with students directly in mind because of their nocturnal habits,” University Senior Counsel Charles Barber said in a phone interview last week.
In a public hearing Thursday, GW argued that the center should stay open longer, while some Foggy Bottom residents said increased hours would disrupt the neighborhood. The commission could decide whether to grant the center longer hours as early as June 14, and if it rules in GW’s favor, the facility would keep new hours starting this fall.
GW’s plan would also allow some School Without Walls students, neighborhood residents and members of the President’s Club to access the center. Currently, the facility is only open to GW staff, faculty and students.
At the hearing, Barber said GW would strengthen its relationship with the community by letting area residents living near the G Street facility to exercise there.
“We see it as an opportunity to outreach to the community, and we think we can do it in a way that would not adversely affect the population,” he said. He added that extending the center’s hours would help accommodate the potential new 1,300 users.
“The hours will go a long way to meeting the needs of students … but that’s the way we allow this resource to be used by community members,” Barber said in an interview before the hearing. “You have a certain defined physical space, but if you lengthen the hours, we can extend the resource.”
In a dispute that has played out whenever the University seeks to change zoning orders, some residents said extending the center’s hours would disrupt the quiet character of Foggy Bottom.
“We’re trying to retain this residential neighborhood,” Foggy Bottom Association president Ron Cocome said in a phone interview. “(Students) are going to be disruptive. You can’t help it. It wakes people up from their sleep. We don’t need it, and we shouldn’t have it.”
But Barber said residents’ fears are unfounded because the University has never received any complaints about disruptive students at the center.
“Some people think they will make noise when they leave, but that hasn’t happened to date, and we haven’t had any complaints,” Barber said. “They’re usually tired and want to go home.”
Dorothy Miller, chair of the local Advisory Neighborhood Comission, an elected body that makes recommendations to the zoning commission, led the opposition to the proposed changes at Thursday’s hearing. Miller said she goes to sleep at 9 p.m. and that students should spend their free time studying, not exercising.
“We think it would be a good idea if they study,” Miller said. “They should study harder and play a little less.”
Miller also said she is concerned that increasing the center’s membership would bring more cars to Virginia Avenue, which she said is “so jammed you can’t use it.”
But Cynthia White of Grove/Slade Associates, who testified on GW’s behalf, said that a traffic study the group conducted shows that the impact of additional users would be minimal.
She explained that the only category of users who would be driving to the area are members of President’s Club, who would only bring 18 additional cars to the area per day. The club is comprised of benefactors who have made large donations to the University.
Miller said she opposes letting community members use the facility because it could have a negative effect on local commercial gyms. As an educational institution, GW does not have to pay the same type of taxes as businesses.
“This is making commercial use in a residential neighborhood,” Miller said. “You can’t compete with someone who doesn’t pay taxes when you have to pay taxes.”
Barber said he has tried to assuage the concerns of the ANC but that the body will not discuss the situation with him.
“The ANC has continually refused to meet,” he said. “We have made presentations at their meetings, and it’s been very difficult. I don’t think it’s an informed decision, but we have not been successful in the past gaining support on any issue.”
He said students should not be concerned that additional gym members would cause the center to be overcrowded. Adopting regulations that would allow only students to use the gym during peak hours would ensure that it does not become too crowded.
“We will manage this with the goal of keeping this a positive experience for students, who are the primary customers here,” Barber said. “To the extent we allow others here, we’ll take into consideration of students.”