GW must act as members of Foggy Bottom community, not its owners

The University demolished the 135-year-old building once home to the Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service earlier this month. Though the site’s redevelopment as part of the 2007 Foggy Bottom Campus Plan was long in the making, with the building gone, residents and students have lost a reminder that Foggy Bottom is a community – not just a university campus. Amid larger plans to redevelop campus spaces, the demolition of the historic home is the latest salvo in a larger struggle over the University’s control of Foggy Bottom.

Though both former and current neighborhood leaders have praised the demolition of the Nashman Center building, University officials have long acted as owners – not members – of Foggy Bottom’s community. The University’s development plans ahead of a 2027 deadline stipulated in its 2007 Foggy Bottom Campus Plan, and its desire to establish a “unified campus identity” under the complementary Strategic Campus and Facilities Master Plan, should break with the University’s past actions in Foggy Bottom. The University’s immense influence and extensive real estate portfolio have displaced small business owners and contributed to the neighborhood being home to some of the District’s highest rents. As it stands, the University risks creating a quasi-company town out of Foggy Bottom, but it can – and must – reverse course. Rather than wielding development as a weapon, the University should approach it as a tool to engage community partners.  

Both the 2007 plan and the strategic plan focus on the University’s building stock rather than its relationship with the community. Chief Financial Officer Mark Diaz, who is leading the 10-person committee overseeing the plan, has said that the Foggy Bottom Campus “blends into its surroundings” and “that it’s very difficult to determine if you’re on the campus or not.” Though the University’s Foggy Bottom Campus consists of preexisting buildings and purpose-built structures of various styles assembled over the last century, branded garbage and recycling bins and signs bearing the names of residence halls and academic buildings make the University’s presence clear. 

But pondering design concepts like those provided by architectural firm Cooper Robertson as part of a 20-year development scheme obscures the fact that the University does not know how to treat Foggy Bottom’s community. Are they neighbors and partners or the backdrop to slick marketing campaigns, opponents of necessary development or residents wary of destructive expansion? 

Ultimately, the University is acting like what historian Davarian Baldwin calls a “univercity” – a corporate developer looking to maximize profits rather than an institution of higher learning with deep ties to its community. Profitable retail and commercial spaces that cater to students’ needs support the University’s bottom line, but they contribute to an insular environment in which students treat residents as threatening intruders rather than neighbors

Beyond making residents feel unwelcome, the University’s development also explicitly pushes residents living and working in the area out of Foggy Bottom. The University leased out previous campus spaces to private firms to redevelop 2100 Pennsylvania Ave. in 2019.

“The type of organic, small businesses that used to line Pennsylvania Avenue are no longer there,” then Foggy Bottom and West End Advisory Neighborhood Commission Chairman Patrick Kennedy said in 2017. “Those are the type of retailers that make a neighborhood.”

Tenants in the complex who were forced to relocate their businesses due to the redevelopment voiced their concerns to The Hatchet at the time.  

“For them to run out small business and try to tear it down and put in a new corporate development with just restaurants, it’s not fair,” Cathy McNeal, the manager of a dry cleaner’s in 2100 Penn told The Hatchet in 2019. 

As with the Nashman Center, the University’s designs put it at odds with Foggy Bottom residents looking to preserve everything from historic architecture to their own livelihoods. 

While leasing the Pennsylvania Avenue development to Boston Properties and other similar arrangements have provided the University with a financial windfall, it’s left local residents and business owners – including cleaners, barbers and shoeshiners – footing the bill of finding new living and working arrangements. Yet those who are able to stay in Foggy Bottom might consider themselves lucky. Across the District, intense gentrification, often along racial lines, has fueled the exodus of thousands of residents over the past decade. 

This isn’t the result of bad intentions: to its credit, the University has organized outreach meetings and community workshops for residents to give their input on these plans. But if the University truly wants to be the open campus city school it advertises itself as, it should act like it. It must pull back and reevaluate its position and its actions. 

While students can cooperate with and pressure organizations like the ANC and Foggy Bottom Association, it’s up to the University’s administration to chart a path forward. Officials can start by updating University members and residents about ongoing projects through continued community meetings. While it would be unrealistic to expect the University to completely change its plans year over year to accommodate feedback, consistent and continuous communication to and from residents would do much to assuage concerns. 

But communication alone isn’t enough. The University, students and community partners must carefully consider the realities of future development. Our goal must be to create a university within and of a community, not a self-isolated urban island of education. 

Ethan Benn, a sophomore majoring in journalism and mass communication, is an opinions writer. 

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