The battle over Foggy Bottom’s future is coming to a store near you – literally. While GW touts its ties to the District, the relocation of the GW Campus Store to 2100 Pennsylvania Ave. has become the latest flashpoint in a community defined both by and in opposition to the University.
The new, 16,000-square-foot retail space inside 2100 Penn will include a rotating event space, a children’s book section and an area to highlight local artisans, setting the venue above and beyond its current location in the basement of the University Student Center. But local community groups are using planned modifications to the building’s design to argue the Campus Store doesn’t belong in 2100 Penn altogether.
Before the Campus Store can open this fall, GW and real estate firm Boston Properties want the city’s approval to install a wider “The George Washington University Campus Store” sign above the building’s I Street entrance and eliminate the store’s 21st Street entrance. While the West End Citizens Association and Foggy Bottom Association have objected to these requests, the battle over the building isn’t ultimately about aesthetics. If it were, Boston Properties and GW’s decision to shrink the sign before the Foggy Bottom and West End Advisory Neighborhood Commission voted to approve the project 4-0 earlier this month should have placated their critics.
Instead, this debate between neighborhood residents and the University in their backyard is about the gap between the needs and wants of the local community and GW – and how both understand 2100 Penn. The modification is hardly more than a facelift to the University, while residents believe it’s a violation of zoning regulations and a sign of GW’s dominance over the neighborhood.
While the new Campus Store is clearly retail, it’s not the “new community-oriented retail,” like a grocery store, dining venue or child care facility, that Foggy Bottom and West End residents were hoping for – or that WECA contends must occupy the space. In a letter submitted to the D.C. Zoning Commission Friday, a law firm representing WECA alleges the city approved 2100 Penn’s construction to create retail space and attract new businesses to the neighborhood – not another outpost for GW. If that was the plan from the beginning, the Campus Store would alter the building’s purpose and benefit to the public and necessitate a public hearing where the Campus Store’s opponents can raise their larger concerns before the D.C. Zoning Commission.
For their part, officials and Boston Properties have argued changing 2100 Penn’s design doesn’t fundamentally alter the building project as a whole. And though the Zoning Commission’s initial approval for 2100 Penn’s construction mentions various types of uses the retail space might fulfill, it was never a mandate that precluded GW from relocating its Campus Store in the future.
Nor is it unreasonable to assume that officials intended to use the location for a new Campus Store from the outset. The University owns the land 2100 Penn sits on and has worked with Boston Properties in the past. Anchoring the space with the new Campus Store is a mutually beneficial investment that gives the University a marquee retail space and buoys the building’s financial future with a major long-term tenant, even if – as the community’s negative reaction to the project shows – there are hoops to jump through.
Residents’ demand for changes to the project and their opposition to the Campus Store itself are hardly surprising given the history of disagreements between the University and the surrounding neighborhood. Local groups have sparred with officials over the construction of the GW Hospital in the 1990s, threatened to sue the University over its campus plan in the 2000s and spent years debating the construction of a helipad at GW Hospital in the 2010s.
The truth is that what best serves GW doesn’t always help its neighbors. So it’s understandable that they’re unwilling to take the University at its word, especially since there’s no guarantee the aforementioned event space, children’s section and selection of products from local artisans and artists will come to fruition.
All the same, the new Campus Store is undoubtedly an improvement over its current location for students and the University. For one, more retail space that isn’t tucked away in the bowels of the student center means it’s more accessible. And if the Campus Store opens as planned with a technology store with Apple products, a GW Information Technology help desk and other features, it’ll be far more than a place to take your parents or stock up on supplies at the start of the semester.
But for the Campus Store to be truly successful – and earn the trust of residents – it needs to benefit the neighborhood just as well as it does GW. Officials already know how to operate University spaces that cater to the broader community, like the Lerner Health and Wellness Center and Gelman Library. Even if it’s adorned in GW regalia, the Campus Store should be a place where residents feel welcome. The store’s community-focused features, like the rotating event space, children’s book section and “made-in-D.C.” selections, should be at the core of the store’s experience, not a gimmick to run a profit or soften opposition to the project.
As of right now, a vacant storefront plastered over with posters doesn’t make I Street a bustling thoroughfare, enliven the neighborhood or give the University a return on its investment. So the sooner the Campus Store opens, the sooner officials can execute their concept for more community-oriented spaces within the location.
The Campus Store is a far cry from a grocery store or day care, but perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of good – or even mediocre. Officials’ plan deserves the go-ahead, just so long as there’s room for the local community amid a sea of Buff and Blue.
The editorial board consists of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s staff editorial was written by Opinions Editor Ethan Benn and Contributing Opinions Editor Julia Koscelnik, based on discussions with Sports Editor Nuria Diaz, Managing Editor Jaden DiMauro, Culture Editor Clara Duhon, Design Editor Grace Miller and Social Media Director Ethan Valliath.
This article appeared in the March 27, 2023 issue of the Hatchet.