Mayor supports GW’s Square 54 plans, says ‘community has been a little hard on the University’

D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams said he supports GW’s initiatives for developing the old hospital site and thinks Foggy Bottom community members should ease up on their criticisms of the University.

“It’s easy for me to say this because I’m not running for re-election, but I think the community has been a little hard on the University,” Williams said in an Oct. 5 interview with The Hatchet.

Williams, who rents an apartment in Foggy Bottom, announced this month that he will not be running for a third mayoral term next year. Williams said he thinks using Square 54, the vacant lot located across from the Foggy Bottom Metro station, for commercial development, as GW has proposed, would be beneficial to the city. He spoke briefly to The Hatchet last Wednesday following his weekly press briefing.

While the mayor admitted that the University’s development has compromised some of the local community, he said he sees the University as an institution that gives a lot back to the community and the city, especially since it is the second-largest employer in the District.

“Certainly you can say that a part of Foggy Bottom has been lost,” Williams said. “But sometimes we need to let a good thing be. It would help the city with our taxes and business, and I commend (University) President (Stephen Joel) Trachtenberg.”

Local residents have criticized the University for wanting to use the land for investment purposes by creating retail, office space and market-rate apartments as opposed to using it for additional classroom space and meeting housing requirements.

Due to an increased undergraduate population during the past 20 years, the University has expanded its campus outside of its official boundaries, irritating local residents who have lived in the area for years. Residents have fought the University’s development initiatives and have complained about it not being able to keep its students and classrooms within campus boundaries; they believe building dorms and academic buildings on Square 54 would aid the situation.

In response to Williams’ statements, community members said they doubted the mayor’s understanding of issues between residents and the community, even if he does live in the neighborhood. Williams, since first being elected in 1998, has drawn criticism for his perceived prizing of business development over residents’ needs.

“(It) makes one wonder how little the mayor really knows about the problems the University has created in Foggy Bottom,” long-time resident and Foggy Bottom Association member Edward Gable wrote in an e-mail Friday. “If the Foggy Bottom community is hard on the mayor, it is only because the mayor has stood by and not helped the community while GWU attacks us with bulldozers and buildings.”

Foggy Bottom Association President Joy Howell also said that she does not think the mayor’s statements accurately reflect the feelings of community residents.

“I don’t think he speaks for the community,” she said. “I think he has a broader agenda.”

Richard Sawaya, GW vice president of government, international and corporate affairs, said he is not surprised the mayor is backing the University’s proposal for the site, especially since it echoes Williams’ plans for creating more business in the city.

“I think the mayor spoke his mind, and I think he is reflecting a truth,” Sawaya said, adding that he stands by a Sept. 30 Washington Post editorial stating that Williams “will go down as the most accomplished mayor in the city’s 30 years of home rule.”

Despite the mayor’s views on Square 54 and the Foggy Bottom community, Gable said he does not disapprove of Williams in general because he has made enormous strides in improving the District’s economy.

“I think Mayor Williams overall has been a good mayor for Washington – I have voted for him in every election and probably would again if he ran again,” he said.

Howell said a mid-September U.S. District Court ruling, which denied appeals by the University to amend the stipulations of its campus plan, should have set the city into action in investigating accusations by residents that the University is not in compliance with a mandate that all freshmen and sophomores live within campus. GW needs to meet that mandate by next fall.

To involve community members in the proposal process for Square 54, the University hosted four meetings over the summer to discuss community concerns with campus development. Gable said the meetings did not take into account all concerns because FBA members did not attend following a dispute between the group and the University during initial negotiations.

“The purpose of GWU in meeting with them was so that later, before the Zoning Commission, GWU could attempt to convince the commissioners that they had had meaningful conversations with key Foggy Bottom residents,” Gable said. “They did not.”

The Urban Land Institute, a group of land-use planning and real estate experts that evaluated potential uses for Square 54, held discussions with city, University and community leaders last May. ULI released its final recommendations for the site last week.

The report’s recommendations came as no surprise. They said the land should be redeveloped as a commercial mixed-use project, consisting of office, residential and retail uses.

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