Zoning Commision passes Square 54, sets construction plan in motion

Construction on the old hospital site just south of Washington Circle is set to begin next academic year after the Square 54 commercial project received unanimous approval from the D.C. Zoning Commission Monday night.

The go-ahead from the commissioners came after GW agreed to reduce the height of a residential building along 22nd Street – a request the commission made after postponing a decision on the plan in late February. Ruling on the application, which GW and the developer Boston Properties filed in March 2006, has been delayed three times.

Before the meeting, GW submitted revised plans for the complex, which included a 1-percent decrease in the building’s density but without any reduction in public benefits offered. Such amenities include a 25,000-square-foot grocery store and a 26,000-square-foot courtyard.

Commissioners said at Monday’s meeting they were very pleased with the revised application.

“I’m happy with the response from the applicant, and I’m glad that the amenities have remained intact,” Zoning Commission Chair Carol Mitten said.

University officials said the approval is an exciting development for the future of GW. Executive Vice President and Treasurer Lou Katz said revenue from the 60-year lease of the Square 54 site to Boston Properties will fund a new science center.

A timeline for the project’s construction is still unknown, with many official actions still months away. Once the final written approval from the Zoning Commission comes, which Katz said might be as early as May, the University can begin the process of applying for construction permits. The likely opening date of the complex is 2010, he said.

Media Relations Director Tracy Schario said that after so many resources were used in the application, it was a relief to have some forward momentum.

“This is a wonderful conclusion to a very aggressive development plan,” Schario said. “This gives us a lot of ability to meet our objectives.”

Schario declined to tell the amount Boston Properties has agreed to pay GW for leasing the property.

When the Square 54 complex was first introduced, some students and professors opposed the University’s decision to use the 2.4 acres as a revenue source rather than for classrooms and residence halls. After holding information sessions around the Foggy Bottom and Mount Vernon campuses, much of the opposition died down.

But community members continue to oppose the project. The Foggy Bottom/West End Advisory Neighborhood Commission, an elected body that advises D.C. officials on community concerns, passed a resolution protesting the project. Some local activists against the residential and commercial complex since it was first proposed in 2005 said they might appeal it.

The Foggy Bottom Association, a community organization dedicated to preserving the neighborhood, has already tried to derail the project by suing the city. The suit maintained that GW has not complied with the previous 2000 Campus Plan and it was therefore illegal for the city to consider a GW construction project.

FBA President Joy Howell said once the official zoning order for Square 54 is released, her lawyer will determine whether there are aspects worth appealing.

“We’ll wait and see if they dotted all their i’s,” said Howell, who heads a group of community members dedicated to preserving the residential character of their neighborhood.

Howell added that Square 54 should have been used for academic purposes: “Universities can do great good in a community, but not when they overwhelm it.”

About 20 students, including Student Association President Lamar Thorpe, attended Monday night’s meeting in the D.C. government building. Students were shuttled to the building as part of Campaign GW, a group founded by last year’s SA President Audai Shakour to support GW’s 20-year Campus Plan.

The Campus Plan, which identifies all potential construction projects for the next two decades, was approved by the Zoning Commission March 15. The plan also includes negotiated restrictions on future construction as well as on University operations to reduce adverse impacts on the surrounding residential neighborhood.

Casey Pond, student organizer for Campaign GW, said Square 54 is especially significant because it allows the University to begin executing the Campus Plan. He said he and the other students at the meeting were very excited for the decision after testifying in support to the Zoning Commission.

“(Campaign GW) allowed students to have an impact on the future of the University,” Pond said. “Whether or not it had an effect on the outcome, it changed the way (officials) viewed the University.”

About 25 students attended each hearing, with the exception of the Jan. 14 meeting because of winter break, Pond said, and the zoning commissioners graciously acknowledged the group for adding a student voice to the debate.


What is Square 54

The Square 54 proposal includes a public courtyard, outdoor caf?s and a grocery store at least twice the size of the Watergate Safeway. Developers hope a 60-foot-wide I Street sidewalk will draw Mall-bound tourists to ground-level retail.

What’s next?

The National Capitol Planning Commission, a federal organization that oversees D.C. development, needs to approve the project’s design. Even after final
approval, red tape is expected to snarl the project for a couple months.

When will it be completed?

Those familiar with zoning procedures say NCPC approval is almost definite. A 35-day appeal window will be offered for any remaining opposition. The Foggy Bottom Association has said it plans to appeal if it finds fault with the final plan.

-David Ceasar contributed to this report.

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