The D.C. Zoning Commission unanimously approved officials’ proposed renovations to Thurston Hall and a temporary housing plan to accommodate displaced Thurston residents at a public hearing Monday.
The five-member commission approved three zoning applications the University filed this summer to allow 550 undergraduates to live in The Aston, One Washington Circle Hotel and 1959 E St. during Thurston’s two-year renovation process. The Commission also approved specific renovation plans, like an overhead canopy to cover the hall’s courtyard year-round, additional common spaces and a dining facility within the hall.
Zoning Commission members asked Alicia Knight, the senior associate vice president for operations, and University attorney David Avitabile why renovations to Thurston were necessary despite officials’ plans to reduce undergraduate enrollment by 20 percent over the next five years.
Knight said the University pledged to renovate Thurston, which is expected to cost nearly $80 million, because the hall is a “cornerstone” of residential life for first-year students.
“The University is committed to Thurston Hall given its, I would say, stature and its relevance to the student experience at GW,” she said. “It still feels like this is a very worthwhile project for our undergraduate population and first-year students, specifically.”
Knight said the University is confident that renovations will be completed within the two-year time frame negotiated with the Foggy Bottom and West End Advisory Neighborhood Commission. The University has agreed to pay a $1 million fine for each semester renovations continue past the scheduled fall 2022 finish date.
ANC commissioners and West End Citizens Association leaders testified at the hearing to support the University’s plan.
ANC chair William Kennedy Smith said commissioners were initially skeptical of officials’ plans to temporarily house students in One Washington Circle Hotel and the decision to nix construction of a residence hall on 20th and H Streets – to instead expedite Thurston renovations – just three months after proposing the project.
But Smith said officials “went the extra mile” to keep community members apprised of construction plans and involve residents and local leaders in the development processes.
“We’ve never seen this level of support from every community organization, and frankly, every senior community activist, for a project involving GW before,” Smith said.
Student Association President SJ Matthews said Thurston’s renovations will address students’ complaints that the hall lacks communal spaces in which first-year students can bond and that the building severely needs repairs. Thurston residents have complained about mold, damaged floors and dysfunctional elevators present in the hall.
“Their complaints all stem from the fact that the needs of the student body have changed over the years, but Thurston has not,” Matthews said. “This renovation will ensure that GW is able to meet the needs of its first-year students and provide them with a great first-year experience.”
Trinity Diaz, president of the Residence Hall Association, said the proposed gathering spaces will foster a greater sense of community when freshmen arrive on campus.
“Renovating Thurston would have a direct impact on the ability of students to feel welcome and at home in Foggy Bottom,” Diaz said.