Column: At Staughton Hall and RFK Stadium, officials learn a lesson in redeveloping D.C.

Two D.C. buildings – GW’s Staughton Hall and RFK Stadium – are surprisingly similar. Sure, one is a 1912 apartment building and the other a massive sports complex, but they’re both abandoned, steps away from the Metro and occupy prime real estate. In as many words, they’re practically crying out for redevelopment, so much so that crews demolished Staughton Hall in May and will do the same to RFK Stadium by the end of 2023.

While both GW and the District are well within their right to knock down old, albeit historic, buildings for new construction, Staughton Hall and RFK Stadium show where their strategies diverge. GW acted first and thought later – it used its broad leeway to demolish Staughton Hall without a clear plan for what comes next. But at RFK Stadium, the D.C. Council and Mayor Muriel Bowser won’t go forward until and unless they agree on the site’s future. So while city officials plan to redevelop the stadium’s grounds, even if they can’t agree yet, the University has been mum about what, if anything, will replace Staughton Hall. Without a clear vision for redevelopment, I’m worried that GW will keep turning vacant buildings into vacant lots.

With the city’s approval, GW has broad permission to transform its Foggy Bottom Campus as it sees fit. The University’s 2007 Foggy Bottom Campus Plan allows GW to develop about 3.5 million square feet of real estate, whether planting new trees or tearing down buildings like Staughton Hall. And in fairness, even naysayers like me can acknowledge that Staughton Hall’s demolition (or the similar razing of the former Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service building last October) was long overdue. Petite Victorian row houses and brick apartment buildings look nice, but ultimately form doesn’t beat function – their age, and the presence of equally outdated materials like asbestos, made them largely inaccessible.

But officials demolished Staughton without an immediate plan for its future development. A University spokesperson told The Hatchet as much in an email in January, saying “While a timeline has not been developed for a new building,” the vacant Staughton Hall is “well suited for additional green space until the redevelopment occurs.”

To return to the campus plan, GW must build or receive approval to construct at least 70 percent of that 3.5 million square feet to retain the rights to continue developing its land. I doubt the University will simply sacrifice its development rights – it’s going to build something. But that’s a far cry from knowing what said building will look like, or when they’ll build it. You can see what might replace Staughton Hall looming in the background of this render of a reimagined Kogan Plaza revealed at a Faculty Senate meeting last year. And documents submitted with the 2007 campus plan list other nearby buildings, like Gelman Library, the GW EMeRG building and the small park area next to GW Deli, as areas for future redevelopment – though they don’t specify what officials have in mind.

So without plans for immediate or otherwise rapid development, GW has turned a vacant but arguably still usable building into “green space.” But a strip of grass, some trees and a bench or two don’t exactly fit in with the University’s mantra of “Grow Up, Not Out.” Officials say they want to increase density on the University’s current property rather than sprawl out into the rest of Foggy Bottom and the West End, which local residents have historically resisted. But these mini parks are missed opportunities – even old, vacant structures can find a new purpose and house more people, offices and classrooms than a grassy lot. If there’s no timeline to replace Staughton Hall, then what was the rush to tear it down?

RFK Stadium is the reverse of Staughton Hall – the D.C. Council and Mayor Bowser know just how they want to redevelop the sprawling site, though they don’t exactly agree. While replacing asphalt parking lots and a run-down stadium with homes, businesses, public parks and recreational facilities is a no-brainer, Bowser and the Council have gone back-and-forth over whether the new site should include a new professional football stadium. The federal government, which owns the land the stadium complex sits on, won’t sell or transfer it to D.C. until both sides come to a consensus. And of course, there’s also the fire that broke out in the stadium earlier this month.

As dysfunctional as the city’s plans for RFK Stadium may seem, they have a plan, and an ambitious one at that. Compare that to GW’s new “green spaces,” which allow it to cop out of new construction and vaguely gesture to a timeline in the distant future.

I want the University to literally put its money where its mouth is – if Staughton Hall had to come down, then invest in a building to replace it. I’m ready to support new development, but seeing is believing. I hope officials will prove me wrong if, or when, they break ground on Staughton Hall’s successor – hopefully, a large, beautiful building that represents the progress GW has made since its predecessor was erected in 1912. But until then, I’ll treat that “green space” less as a park, and more as a cemetery for something taken from us far too soon.

Ethan Benn, a rising junior majoring in journalism and communication, is the opinions editor

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