The D.C. Zoning Commission unanimously approved a proposed renovation of Pelham Hall Monday, marking one of the most expensive developments on the Mount Vernon Campus since it was acquired in 1999.
Compared to the years spent pushing long-term Foggy Bottom plans through District government, garnering approval for the Pelham project was relatively quick and uneventful, administrators said. The plan calls for Pelham to increase occupancy by 200 students.
Reflecting on the proposal – and its lack of controversy in the community – local residents and University officials gave credit to GW’s responsive, personal relationship with residents of the area surrounding Mount Vernon’s Foxhall Road campus.
“We have a smaller residential neighborhood, wherein the neighbors can communicate directly with me as a neighbor,” said Fred Siegel, associate vice president and dean of freshman, who lives adjacent to the campus. Siegel personally attended to neighbors last year when several individuals complained that water from the campus was running into their yards.
After a heavy rainstorm, he put on his boots and inspected the lawns himself. For those who live around the Mount Vernon Campus, such neighborly attention has become the norm.
Other, more suburban complaints from Foxhall-area residents have included dying shrubbery on the border of campus and light from residence halls coming into their living rooms. Some said they just don’t like looking at the University parking lot.
Steve McClain, a neighbor of the Mount Vernon Campus, said he understands the University’s place in the community.
“On some points we agreed to disagree, but we have respect for the people at GW,” McClain said. “And we understand that the University has needs.”
Siegel said one homeowner who lives on W Street asked that the University plant shrubs in front of its parking lot in order to conceal it from his home. When the plants started to dry out, Siegel gave him access to an unlimited supply of campus water.
In addition to the Pelham Hall project, the ten-year Mount Vernon Campus plan had provided for even more new developments that the University chose to put on hold, Siegel said. He considers this restraint to be “an act of good faith” between the campus and its neighbors.
Grae Baxter, who was the first executive dean of the Mount Vernon Campus, described how a few simple factors calmed relations.
“We had a number of advantages,” Baxter said. “One was that the campus had a fence around it. The University wasn’t going to go anywhere by surprise.”
She also oversaw the transition of Mount Vernon from a small women’s college to a co-educational University, a change that worried some longtime neighbors.
“I think they may have had visions of Animal House,” Baxter said. “Now they know that the University is respectful of their concerns and that our students are really good people.”
She added that Mount Vernon is surrounded by many pleasant people who do not have vendettas against the University.
“The people around Mount Vernon are very sophisticated and they’re really good citizens,” Baxter said. “And for the most part they didn’t have their own axes to grind and they weren’t seeking political points by being negative.”
Steve Gardner, who lives on W Street, said the campus’ outreach to the community has garnered a positive attitude.
“We think the University maintains very good relations with its neighbors, particularly through the community meetings held through Fred Siegel,” Gardner said. He added that while relations are positive, he worries about the future.
“I think the neighbors on W Street are not so much concerned about the scope and size of Pelham Hall, but are more concerned with the long-term plans that the University has for developing the campus,” he said.
Michael Akin, the director of Community Relations, outlined the different conditions affecting community relations at the Mount Vernon and Foggy Bottom campuses.
“Our Foggy Bottom campus is large and porous, with a lot of students,” Akin said. “The Mount Vernon campus is self-contained and much smaller.”
Tracy Schario, a University spokesperson, said the University is continually working to improve relations within Foggy Bottom.
“Every year we try to make improvements, and if you compare 2000 to 2007, are we stronger? Absolutely.” Schario said. “No one is trying to deny that there are the few bad apples (in Foggy Bottom): the students who come home drunk, make a lot of noise and piss in people’s yards.”