News analysis: Neighbors warm up to University

After years of facing expansion into their community and dealing with administrators they said were unresponsive, residents of Foggy Bottom and the West End grew to distrust GW. A point came when residents began to reject nearly every University initiative, simply because of the source.

But since January the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, a community group that makes zoning recommendations, has passed two University proposals – one allowing a minor alteration in the building plans of the new dorm being constructed at 2025 F Street and another unanimously approving the rezoning of Quigley’s on the corner of 21st and G Streets – without dispute.

“A vote like that would have been unheard of in years past,” said Michael Akin, GW’s director of the Office of Foggy Bottom/West End Affairs. “We’re seeing that the level of trust has been built back.”

Akin said that he has been noticing a shifting dynamic in Foggy Bottom for the past few years and that this year, both the community and the University are “really starting to see these changes.”

The new ANC

A change in the makeup of the ANC after the November 2004 election has greatly contributed to the shift. Newcomers Anne Savage, Vince Micone and James Morris replaced longtime members Maria Tyler and James Lewis, as well as GW senior Graham Long last fall.

“There are some new people who don’t have as much history, and I think they are coming to the table with an open mind,” said Michele Molotsky, director of constituent affairs for City Councilman Jack Evans, who represents Foggy Bottom and has close ties with GW. “That will facilitate a better relationship.”

In February, the ANC members voted Micone to chair the commission. The move stripped former chair Dorothy Miller, possibly the community’s most vocal critic of GW, of her leadership role.

Micone insists that issues brought before the commissions are handled by whichever commissioner represents the constituency affected the most. Micone’s single-member district encompasses much of campus, rendering Miller unable to muster as much clout against the University as she formerly did.

Micone’s leadership has also brought more structure to the monthly meetings – during her tenure as chair, Miller often engaged in shouting matches and name-calling.

Micone said the ANC and the University have a “working relationship” but that tension should be expected.

“A healthy relationship doesn’t mean we agree all the time,” Micone, a Justice Department official, said. “Part of it is that we agree to communicate, which we have been.”

Akin said the commission under Micone’s leadership has been more receptive to University initiatives and makes decisions based “on the merits of the project.”

Micone said he tries to ensure that “everyone will receive a fair amount of time to speak” about issues at the monthly meetings.

“We are not going to keep people happy 100 percent of the time, but what we can do is make sure that people are heard 100 percent of the time.”

Akin said the new ANC “is only one piece of the larger picture.” He highlighted the success of FRIENDS, a monthly neighborhood forum for community members – many of whom support GW – and University officials.

Molotsky, of Evans’ office, said she noticed an increase in University initiatives to engage in dialogue with local community members.

“It’s been my perception that in the last three years the University has made a tremendous effort to reach out to the community and address their concerns,” she said.

Challenges still loom

Akin admitted that all the problems built up from years past are not solved, but he said he sees the relationship heading in a positive direction.

“We still have work to do,” he said. “We’re trying to overcome 10 to 15 years of town-gown tensions.”

Both Akin and Micone recognized that the biggest challenge facing the community-University relationship is the debate over development of the former GW hospital site at 22nd and I streets.

Akin said the University has asked for community input on what to build on the site since last June. In February, the ANC voted to engage in talks with the University, the D.C. Office of Planning, the site’s contractors and another community group. The first of the meetings, which will continue throughout the summer, is May 4 in the Elliott School of International Affairs building – a facility that faced stiff opposition from community members when it was being built.

While the University has said in the past that it is looking to use the site as a mixed-use facility with both academic and retail space, Akin said community input will be taken into consideration before any decisions are made.

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