Tenley campus from Wisconsin Ave.

American University is developing their 2011 campus plan, which will guide growth for the next decade. In effect, the plan is also an understanding between the neighborhood and the university about what the part of the city they share should look like in 2020… and 2060.

In addition to some new buildings on campus AU proposes two major changes: First, the university would erect several buildings on some underused parking lots near campus, which I’ll discuss in a later article. The second proposal would relocate the growing Washington College of Law to the Tenley Campus, a facility between Yuma and Warren streets on Wisconsin Avenue at Tenley Circle.

In the abstract, the relocation should benefit the neighborhood and bring more life to the southern part of Tenleytown. The current location of the school is in an autocentric and distant office park on Massachusetts Avenue, a poor location for a professional campus. However, whether the new building benefits or burdens the community will depend on the quality of its execution and the policies with which the administration operates the school.

Currently, around 800 students live on the Tenley Campus, most of them taking part in the Washington Semester program. They occupy a buildings built for the former Immaculata School, which American purchased in 1987. A handful of those structures are designated landmarks, which AU will preserve; others are forgettable midcentury structures, which AU will demolish to handle the law school’s 2,500 students and faculty.

The site has tremendous potential to make Upper Northwest more walkable and more sustainable. Moving the law school closer to the Tenleytown-AU metro station will reduce the net amount of traffic along Nebraska and Massachusetts Avenues. To get to the current law school building, students and faculty can either drive to the generous parking garage, or take the AU shuttle from Tenleytown. 

That access to the Tenleytown metro is especially important to these law students, because most live outside the neighborhood and merely commute in for the school day. Likewise, the Immaculata campus sits right on several bus lines — and a potential streetcar line — that will receive efficiency improvements through TIGER Grants

As a side benefit, the new school would put more foot traffic along the southern block of Tenleytown’s retail area. The current shuttle buses isolates students from neighbors; the three-block walk down Wisconsin would put them face-to face on the main strip. The steady stream of students and faculty would patronize stores and restaurants and justify streetscape improvements that will make Tenleytown nicer for everyone.

On Nebraska Avenue, a well-designed campus would significantly improve the urban architecture of one of DC’s monumental boulevards. Against the other streets, a good architect would be able to make the building disappear into the trees that line the perimeter of the campus. Because the university has no plans or even a design architect yet, the possibilities for integrating the school into the neighborhood are vast. The campus plan is the right opportunity to ask for them.

For all of the potential benefits, the College of Law could still hurt the neighborhood. American could ask for an introverted suburban campus and receive an eyesore and a traffic nightmare. The negotiation between the ANC and the university administration will allow for specific terms of approval to be stated. Design guidelines, operations requirements, and community benefits can be spelled out ahead of time to ensure that both sides gain from the construction and trust is not broken.

American University’s plan is good at first glance. Whether it is good for the next fifty years will depend on how well residents and the university work together to make a lasting improvement to the city. 

Cross posted on цarьchitect.