GW’s development in and around Foggy Bottom is often a highly controversial subject. At GW’s request, an outside consulting firm recently recommended that the University utilize its largest undeveloped tract of land, Square 54 – the vacant lot on I Street between 22nd and 23rd streets – strictly for retail, commercial and residential purposes. With a classroom crunch and growing enrollment, the University must consider the implications of developing the lot without the inclusion of academic facilities.
As the largest landowner in the District behind the federal government, GW collects a sizable portion of its operating revenue from real-estate investments. The ownership of office and retail space in 2000 Penn, parking garages and the land that the F Street International Monetary Fund building sits on may seem like a departure from GW’s academic mission. In reality, its unique position as a significant landholder in D.C. facilitates the operation of the University and counterbalances a relatively low endowment.
Square 54, one of the last undeveloped areas along Pennsylvania Avenue, ranks among the highest-valued properties in the District. Preferably, future development on this land would lead to a mix of academic facilities, residence halls and office space to alleviate growing pains. This, however, is probably not a practical plan for such a valuable tract of land. While this page recommends that Square 54 include a significant amount of classroom space, it is reasonable to assume that the University could meet its goals for both the undeveloped land and future classroom space in other ways.
Placing certain University functions or offices on the property is a logical compromise. An admissions office situated within the splendor of a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility would impress potential students more than the current office located in the Academic Center. Incorporating ballrooms and other conference facilities into the property would alleviate the strain on the Marvin Center. This would create a true student union while providing newer and better facilities for outside conferences. GW sports recruitment could also benefit from offices in such a grand facility. Moving specific University functions into the new property would require minimal square footage in the facility while opening up more space in Foggy Bottom currently earmarked for such uses.
Students, professors and other stakeholders in GW academics will buy into the idea of a new property without academic facilities if GW can simultaneously execute a plan for the renovation of current buildings or development of new ones. Other than this site, there are plenty of lots the University will likely use for further development. G Street between 20th and 21st streets is basically a parking lot. GW already has targeted the tennis courts on F Street for future construction. Either of these locations could solve the problems of the multiple GW departments currently clamoring for new or upgraded facilities. If academics are not included in the final plan for Square 54, GW must alleviate the fears that new academic facilities are no longer a priority by showing a commitment to developing other open spaces for academic and residential facilities.
It is easy to see that a massive commercial complex on Square 54 will provide the revenue needed to justify its existence. GW’s task, however, is to plan adequately for the long-term as developable land within the campus boundaries disappears. Presenting and committing to a “grand strategy” that encompasses not only plans for Square 54, but also the long-term goals for development on this campus will substantially increase the University’s legitimacy for its former hospital site construction plans.