Corrections, clarifications appended
In the last 30 days, GW has gained D.C. approval for two ambitious development projects: Square 54 and the 20-year Campus Plan. Both community members and University officials agree the two projects will drastically change GW and Foggy Bottom.
Square 54, the 2.6-acre vacant lot across from GW Hospital, will hold a mixed-use commercial and residential complex, to be completed by 2010. The University would draw revenue from the complex through a 60-year lease to real-estate development firm Boston Properties, which will pay for the site’s construction.
“This is a wonderful conclusion to a very aggressive development plan,” Media Relations Director Tracy Schario said. “This gives us a lot of ability to meet our objectives.”
Administrators say revenue from the project will fund a new science center where the above-ground parking garage on 23rd Street between H and I streets stands. The science center is one of 15 planned developments the zoning commission approved when it passed the 20-year Campus Plan. Other developments in the plan include the following: residence halls, expanding Gelman Library and the Academic Center with the possibility of putting a Foggy Bottom Metro entrance where the Women’s Studies townhouse stands.
Michael Akin, director of D.C. and Foggy Bottom/West End Affairs, said the future success of GW is hinged on much of the recently approved development.
“What students have to understand is (that) what we’re planning for today and what we’re working on tomorrow will increase the value of their degree,” he said.
Akin, who attended GW as an undergraduate and will graduate from the School of Business in May, has worked to improve the relationship between local residents and the University. The town-gown animosity in Foggy Bottom is worse at GW than other D.C.-area schools.
Akin said he believes that he and his office have helped neighbors and cites the 136 supporters of either the 20-year Campus Plan or Square 54 who are not students and alumni.
“We aren’t having a dialogue that quickly devolves into a shouting match about whether the University is expanding too much,” he said. “Everyone has become more educated on the Campus Plan.”
Community opposition to both Square 54 and the Campus Plan is still apparent, despite the work of Akin and other community relations officials.
The neighborhood’s elected body for development issues, the Foggy Bottom/West End Advisory Neighborhood Commission, voted 3-2 to oppose Square 54, and members have ardently testified against the 20-year Campus Plan before the Zoning Commission.
The group most strongly opposed to the plan is the Foggy Bottom Association, which is an outlet for residential concerns about the character of the neighborhood. The FBA filed a lawsuit last year to throw out GW’s development proposals, and officers have said they may pursue legal action in the future.
“The height and density of the project are way beyond what the community would have wanted (on Square 54), but more importantly, if GW had wanted to put in classrooms or dorm rooms we would have been happy with the height and density,” said FBA President Joy Howell.
University officials decided to look at changing the 2000 Campus Plan, a 10-year plan outlining terms for GW’s presence in Foggy Bottom, when an Urban Land Institute study concluded that the Square 54 site was ideal for a commercial complex.
Staff members in former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams’ office supported the plan. By removing the land from GW’s nonprofit ownership, more tax revenue could be raised, city officials predicted.
Howell said the support from D.C. officials skewed the development process in GW’s favor and made community input irrelevant.
“The Zoning Commission treated it exactly as we thought it would … basically a rubber stamp,” Howell said.
The D.C. Zoning Commission held lengthy public deliberations in its downtown office to discuss approval of GW’s two major projects. The commission delayed its decision on Square 54 three times and its decision on the Campus Plan four times to gain more information and to hear University response to requested changes.
Howell said community members were cut out of the planning process in the beginning when input would have had a larger impact. She said negotiations between GW, the ANC and the FBA were foregone for community development meetings organized during summer 2005.
University administrators say community input from open meetings two years ago have influenced the development and resulted in plans for a grocery store and an additional Metro entrance. Some FBA members testified in favor of the University at both the Square 54 and Campus Plan – a fact Akin said shows the process worked.
Howell dismissed the FBA members’ testimony as being swayed by promises that aren’t guaranteed.
“Over the years, their history is that they’ve shown alarming disregard for whatever zoning law they’ve agreed to,” Howell said. “GW has worked hard to try to divide the neighborhood by promising amenities such as a grocery store that many people would like to have. Let’s see if they deliver.”
Robert Dunn, an economics professor at GW since 1968, has been following GW’s development since he arrived and said commercial use of Square 54 is the only sensible option.
“There are a lot of people that wanted to stop us – the neighborhood wanted to stop us and make it smaller,” Dunn said. “If we had been required to cut it back, it … wouldn’t have been sustainable.”
Dunn also said the idea of using the land for academic purposes was “ridiculous” because it is the single most-valuable property in the District. He said GW’s reputation for large developments and real-estate acquisitions started before University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, with former University President Lloyd Elliott who acquired Mitchell Hall.
Dunn said since the ambitious Square 54 and Campus Plan proposals have passed, future University President Steven Knapp will be able to focus on other aspects of GW.
“We’ve been playing hardball in the real-estate business for a long, long time,” Dunn said. “I hope it’s over.”
The Hatchet erroneously reported in “Developing GW: Approved plans to change face of University, Foggy Bottom” (April 9, p. 1) that the 20-year Campus Plan has 16, not 15, planned development sites. In the same article, the decision to submit a revised Campus Plan was a result of a D.C. Office of Planning recommendation, not because of an Urban Land Institute study, according to University officials.
The article “Developing GW: Approved plans to change face of University, Foggy Bottom” (April 9, p. 1) reported that “GW has gained D.C. approval” for the 20-year Campus Plan and the Square 54 project. While the revised Campus Plan has gone through all the procedural phases of approval from D.C. and federal officials, the Square 54 proposal still awaits review by the National Capital Planning Commission and final action by the D.C. Zoning Commission. In the same article, Boston Properties was reported to be the developer of Square 54, but it is one of two partners in the site’s construction. The other company is Kettler, formerly KSI Services, Inc.