Photo by rachaelvoorhees on Flickr.

Residents around UDC got 6 of their elected officials to push for parking that city agencies and their own ANC don’t think is necessary, and further pressure on the university to keep students away from other people in the neighborhood.

Greater Greater Washington has obtained a copy of a letter sent to UDC President Alan Sessoms on September 29 by Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, Chairman Kwame Brown, and at-large members Michael Brown, David Catania, Phil Mendelson, and Vincent Orange.

The Zoning Commission approved UDC’s campus plan back in June. Among other things, the plan calls for making UDC more of a residential campus, adding dorms and a student center. This will help DC’s public university become a better school. However, neighbors still aren’t satisfied, and got Cheh, Brown and the 4 at-large councilmembers to send a letter to UDC reiterating some of their demands.

The letter’s first request is for UDC to add additional parking. During the campus plan process, the Zoning Commission and DDOT already decided that more parking was not necessary. And even the ANC voted to approve the plan without asking for more parking. The letter reads:

Traffic and parking are already a problem, and no new parking is envisioned in the University’s campus plan. Notwithstanding the fact that the Zoning Commission and the District Department of Transportation concluded that additional parking is not required, the residents request that the University consider providing more parking in the ratios suggested by the Zoning Regulations, which is I space for every 5 beds. This additional parking would serve not only students but also those visiting the campus.

As Lydia DePillis explained, UDC is serious about getting students not to bring cars. They will use market pricing on their parking lots, push Zipcar and transit, and more.

The councilmembers seem oblivious to this in their letter, however. I spoke to Cheh, who pointed out that UDC will continue to have large numbers of commuters, some of whom will drive. Surely some will, but surrounding residential streets are already restricted by Residential Permit Parking (RPP), so it shouldn’t harm neighbors. The councilmembers seem to have bought into the residents’ assumption that, a priori, more people requires more parking.

There are many policy tools to manage transportation demand that encourage more use of walking, biking, transit, and carpooling. Meanwhile, building parking is expensive, and it will surely induce more car trips. It’s disappointing that the members chose to ask UDC to spend scarce public dollars on parking rather than any other, better measures.

Or, perhaps many of them simply didn’t think very hard about it. Some of the at-large councilmembers, in particular, seem willing to sign on to virtually any letter by angry neighbors asking for restrictions on a local institution. Given the many benefits universities bring to DC, they should apply more of the careful scrutiny they bring to legislation to cases like this as well.

Some of the provisions of the letter make sense. Asking UDC to work with the community on construction impacts is a good idea. Also, the letter refers to a door from the new student center to the Metro which will let nearby residents pass through to get to and from trains.

The councilmembers ask UDC to consider both reducing the size of the dormitory and also signing no new leases for off-campus student housing. This is contradictory, unless the real goal is to keep the numbers of students low. UDC could build more dorms, or have more off-campus housing, but if it adds a certain number of residential students, it has to be one or the other.

Cheh said she strongly supports making DC universities more like many others around the country where most or all students live on campus. I went to such a school, and the residential experience was indeed a valuable part of college, though many who go to schools with more off-campus housing praise elements of that experience as well.

If DC’s public policy is to promote on-campus living, however, we need to realistically provide a path for these campuses to increase on-campus living options. Residents near campuses, and their councilmembers, seem to simultaneously want no students living near campus, no buses traveling to and from campus, no new large buildings, and no expansion of the bounds of the campus.

That is just a recipe for stagnation in a city whose educational options are already more limited than in most other large northeast cities. It’ll also just push educational institutions to build sprawling suburban campuses that take intellectual and cultural capital away from the walkable core of the region and induce far more driving.

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David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.