Members of the community said their concerns with GW go beyond University President Steven Knapp’s doorstep and involve the institution as a whole.
During his more than four-year tenure at the University, Knapp has made strides to diffuse tensions with the neighborhood over GW’s widening Foggy Bottom Campus, but neighborhood leaders said the University still has work to do.
The University’s relationship with the community was markedly bitter under Knapp’s predecessor Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who was at the helm during a time when GW ballooned across Foggy Bottom’s map and transformed into what it is today.
Trachtenberg exited his 19-year presidency in 2007 after morphing Foggy Bottom into a bustling neighborhood through more than a dozen campus development projects, a make-over from its previous image as a calm residential neighborhood.
In 2002, The Washington Post Magazine dubbed GW “the university that ate Foggy Bottom,” describing GW’s changing landscape from “a random collection of buildings” to a “picturesque quad ringed by filigreed iron gates” accompanied by more modern buildings.
Members of the Foggy Bottom and West End Advisory Neighborhood Commission, a top advocacy group with power to submit recommendations to city agencies on matters concerning locals, have said their relationship with GW is perpetually strained.
The Board of Trustees, the University’s highest governing body, meets Friday – 10 months before Knapp’s contract is slated to expire. The search for a new candidate spanned more than six months when a committee selected Knapp, meaning Friday’s gathering could hold discussions about a potential contract renewal.
A relationship with the neighborhood is far from the biggest factor in the Board’s decision of whether or not to renew Knapp’s contract, but a less tense relationship with vocal and critical neighbors can only help GW’s 16th president.
Knapp came to GW about eight months after the city approved the University’s 20-year campus plan in 2007, outlining future sites of development to establish a long-term framework for the school that is still being implemented.
Neighbors have said repeatedly that the deal left the community with the short end of the straw, alleging that Knapp’s administration has not added any improvements to individual projects that would benefit locals. Each site proposal goes through a second approval process with the city to solicit further community input.
Ten-year Advisory Neighborhood commissioner David Lehrman has witnessed both Trachtenberg and Knapp’s tenures after first moving to the area in 1992. He said ANC meetings during Trachtenberg’s presidency were “incredibly contentious.”
“The man at the top does set the tone also,” Lehrman said.
Trachtenberg, a notably boisterous personality, attended many Advisory Neighborhood Commission meetings to “have his finger on the pulse” of the neighborhood, Lehrman said. Knapp, a quieter character who owns a sheep farm in Maryland, delegates responsibilities through a chain of command.
Lehrman said he thinks GW steadily realized it could simultaneously grow and listen to locals’ concerns and has “continued to get better and better.”
“The overall change I think has been positive, in that the University had a learning curve it had to undergo when it started with Trachtenberg,” Lehrman said.
Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans, who entered his role in 1991, said earlier this month that Knapp and Trachtenberg carry vastly different styles but each represent suitable leaders for the University during their terms.
“The relationship has improved a lot from where it was 10 years ago, or even five years ago, I think due in large part to several things,” Evans said, crediting GW’s Office of Government, International and Community Relations for increased outreach.
The close of GW’s era of expansion, lessening the level of “intrusion” into the neighborhood, is also a factor, he said.
Knapp said because he lives on campus, he meets neighbors regularly while walking down the street and said he considers himself accessible.
He said he is unsure how to respond to general criticisms that his administration has not improved communication with neighbors and that if specific circumstances were noted, he would address them.
Trachtenberg said last week that GW’s relationship with the neighborhood was “fine” under his own presidency and only a small group of individuals was frustrated.
“They were unhappy with our growth and our initiative, just as our own students are disturbed by the fact that there are buildings going up on campus,” Trachtenberg said. “I don’t know how you create an environment without making a little noise and having a little dust.”
He added that, for projects like The Avenue, which brought a Whole Foods Market to Foggy Bottom, neighbors’ “dissatisfactions are transient, but the improvements to the community are permanent.”
Foggy Bottom Association president and Advisory Neighborhood commissioner Asher Corson, an alumnus, said the University hasn’t addressed “the substantive issues” with the community any differently under Knapp – referring to the campus plan he views as an aggressive expansionist effort.
“The president’s office under Trachtenberg was not particularly engaged with the community, and so far President Knapp has been no more engaged than Trachtenberg was,” Corson said. “If the University wants to address issues with the community, they need to let us address those issues with the actual decision-makers.”
Corson said he has requested multiple meetings with Knapp that have not come to fruition, adding that he has only met him twice.
“Whether or not we always had the best relationship with Trachtenberg, at a minimum, he knew who members of the community were,” Corson said.
This article appeared in the October 20, 2011 issue of the Hatchet.