Photo by decaf on Flickr.

On December 30th, Georgetown University filed its 10 Year Campus Plan with the DC Zoning Commission.  While the Plan has led to frayed relations between the university and the Georgetown neighborhood, the central dispute concerns what is not in the plan: an increase in on-campus undergraduate housing.

Why should Georgetown University be expected to build additional on-campus housing for undergraduates? 

If you visit the couple dozen blocks around the University in West Georgetown (west of Wisconsin Ave) and Burleith, you will find a student ghetto that simply wasn’t there in 1980. The area is becoming characterized by dilapidated houses and unbagged trash strewn across lawns. 

27% of student group homes have had run-ins with the police in the past year. The university touts this as a success.  Residents, particularly young children, are awakened at all hours by screaming students, and many have begun moving away.

Current students often object that the University has conceded to resident opposition to other elements of the Plan.  It seems to them that the residents will never be satisfied. 

Red markers are undergraduate houses. Yellow markers are graduate houses.

The principal concern for two decades, however, has always been developing on-campus housing equal to growth in undergraduate enrollment.  When the University agrees to this development as it once did, it knows that it will find a residential community more open to compromise on other initiatives even though they may raise residential concerns. 

The university has two objections, however, to the expectation that it build additional on-campus housing.

The adverse impacts standard

First, the university asserts that Georgetown provides on-campus housing for a larger percentage of their undergraduates than any DC university other than Gallaudet.  In reality, it’s actually almost identical to GW, AU and CUA.

This would be meaningful if it mattered, but the Zoning Code puts in place a standard that is relative to each university: enrollment must not result in adverse impacts on the adjoining communities.

What’s so special about Georgetown?  Why does housing 20-30% of undergraduates off-campus adversely impact Georgetown more than Spring Valley, Foggy Bottom or Brookland?

Georgetown has a unique housing stock.  Because it was built pre-zoning, its homes arose organically from a real community, providing the human scale of construction and diversity of home sizes that naturally follow from the needs of a multi-generational community. 

With hundreds of small and medium-sized rowhouses with thin walls and little or no front yards, Georgetown’s housing stock cannot sustain the introduction of over a thousand 18-22 year-olds without turning into a student ghetto. 

This housing stock embodies so much of what has been lost in America’s built environment over the past 50 years, as smart growth leaders like Duany and Speck and Kunstler demonstrate in their thoughtful sketches of Georgetown. 

As Travis Parker from the DC Planning Office said recently to Georgetown residents, Georgetown is what it is because it was built before zoning, such that OP’s current zoning rewrite aims “to enable other neighborhoods to have what Georgetown has”.

We can’t appeal to Georgetown’s example while simultaneously allowing the displacement of the multi-generational community which sustains and is sustained by its housing. 

Requiring Georgetown University to meet the “adverse impacts” standard of DC law, however, is supposed to prevent any such displacement from occurring.

The central challenge, then, is how to maintain the world-class status of the area’s leading university and the multi-generational community living in an historic district on the National Register right next door.

Where to build on-campus housing:

The second response provided by the University to the expectation that it build additional on-campus housing is that there is nowhere else to build. 

Page 13 of the plan claims that the university looked for more locations and found problems everywhere, chief amongst them the limited amount of green space.  Other problems mentioned include “topography limitations, and engineering and design challenges”.

This, too, is not really relevant.  The University has increased undergraduate enrollment consistently over the past several decades without an equal increase in on-campus beds.

However, investigating the claim that there’s no more room for on-campus beds gets to what may be the heart of the problem.  When the University says there’s no more room for on-campus beds, what they really mean is that there’s no more room for single-use dorms.

But mixed-use buildings are not only an important consideration in any dense, urban development, they are also more attractive to students who don’t want to live in “just dorms”.  One student reporter makes the same point.

Neighbors often cite the fact that an architectural firm identified space for 800 additional beds on campus—if the University built on every plot of open space there exists on campus. (And built only dorm-style housing that no student would ever opt to live in as an upperclassman.)

How about the following 4 locations:

  1. Athletic Training Facility: This to-be-built structure could quite easily include additional floors of dorm space.
  2. O’Donovan Dining Hall: This 2-story structure is next to the 9-story SW Quad dorms.  It’s quite common to have dining halls in dorms.  Why not add multiple floors of dorm space above the dining hall?
  3. Epicurean Dining Hall: Again, dining halls in dorms are quite common.  Why not extend the Darnall dorm out over the front of Epicurean?
  4. End of Library Walk: While this is admittedly green space, it is unused by students given its remote location against the Canal Rd entrance and surrounded by parking and cars.  It’s really just unnoticed landscaping, not civic space.  This was proposed by the University’s architect as a potential dorm spot.

When asked about these sites, the VP of Communications says “the proposals you suggest are interesting”, but that “it would be inappropriate to comment on whether or not they have merit without the benefit of a full analysis”. 

She insists that “we’ve conducted a thorough review of locations for residence halls on campus”, but when asked whether these fairly uncreative proposals were considered, she “cannot confirm whether or not these were included in our review or not”.

The only conclusion that one can reach is that the Georgetown town-gown dispute is not being caused by an anti-density stance on the part of the residents.  It’s being caused by an anti-development stance, particularly mixed-use development appropriate to a dense urban context, on the part of the University. 

The University’s flip-flops on housing

There was a time when the University agreed with this.  In the 1990 Campus Plan, the University committed to “adopt as a long term goal of the University, the ability to provide housing for 100 percent of its undergraduate students on campus” and “to create a residential college environment”.

The residential college model relies on mixed-use dorms in which residential life is integrated with other aspects of campus life, particularly intellectual life.  In-dorm dining halls are where students and adults (faculty, grad students, clergy) living in the dorm together commune over meals.

It was the right vision for Georgetown, not least because it’s the model adopted by several universities ranked higher than Georgetown.  Harvard, Yale and Princeton are the most well-known universities with residential colleges, and all three house over 90% of undergraduates on campus.

Apparently the plan changed, because the dorms that were finally built in 2003 (the Southwest Quad) are single use dorms that, in the words of the GU student reporter, “no student would ever opt to live in as an upperclassman”.  It is another student ghetto. 

And the beds that they added were outpaced by the increase in enrollment since the previous dormitory construction.

Not only is single use on-campus housing unattractive for upperclassmen, Georgetown’s housing is the 2nd most expensive in the country.

The path forward for Georgetown, both to comply with DC law and to better compete with higher ranked universities appears to be the path that GU was on 20 years ago:  Offer a residential college environment in mixed-use facilities at a more affordable price.

If you agree, sign a petition opposing the Campus Plan.  If you don’t agree, sign a petition supporting the Campus Plan.

Either way, come to a special Georgetown ANC meeting this Thursday, January 20th, 6:30 pm at Duke Ellington School for the Arts to hear the different positions and make your voice heard.

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Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son.  Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America.