Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.
In “GU takes student ghetto approach to housing undergrads,” Ken Archer argues that Georgetown University has created a “student ghetto” by failing to guarantee undergraduates four years of on-campus housing. In response, he suggests four locations where the University should build “multi-use” facilities behind the gates.
However, the University’s very real financial and space constraints, historical context, and students’ actual needs don’t support this approach.
It’ s hard to substantiate the claim, echoed by many other neighbors, that the University has created a larger “student ghetto” than there was in the past.
Mr. Archer uses 1980 as a benchmark. But a 1979 Hoya student newspaper article reported that only 3,058 students were offered on-campus housing in 1980, or 58 percent of Georgetown’s 5,293 undergraduates. Today, the University houses 84 percent of its undergraduates. In 1980, 2,235 students lived off-campus. Last semester 1,077 students lived off-campus, not including those studying abroad.*
Mr. Archer might still be right that something fundamentally changed in the 1980s. However, I think he misses the true cause. In 1986, the drinking age in D.C. rose from 18 to 21. As a result, the University implemented a harsher alcohol policy in 1987 that made drinking a punishable offense. The University also ordered the closure of the University Center Pub in Healy basement.
Students responded by moving their parties off-campus. The University instituted additional restrictions in 2007, introducing a one-keg limit and requiring that parties be registered beforehand. There aren’t more students actually living off-campus now, but they might be louder.
Regardless of the cause, the 1990s were a highly contentious period. In 1996, neighbors were so bothered by the “student ghetto” that they tried to displace students by proposing a zoning overlay that would prevent more than three unrelated people from renting group homes together. The Zoning Commission rejected the proposal in 1998, ruling that it was discriminatory against students.
In response to the overlay, over 1,000 Georgetown students registered to vote in D.C. to elect two undergraduates to the Advisory Neighborhood Commission. Then-ANC Commissioner Westy Byrd distributed flyers warning students of the consequences of registering and was subsequently charged with voter intimidation (though the US Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute).
Once the two students were elected, the losing ANC commissioners launched a lawsuit against them that dragged on until 2002. When I wrote a feature story about this time period, several people stressed to me how much better town-gown relations are now.
But opposition to the 2000 Campus Plan was just as fierce. Some of the points in the
Burleith Citizen Association’s response letter could be used verbatim as arguments today. (“In fact, the University already has facilities on campus not presently used for undergraduate student housing that would be suitable for that purpose now or in the near future.”)
At the time, the Board of Zoning and Adjustment sided with the neighborhood, refusing the University’s request to increase its enrollment cap and requiring the University to publicly disclose information about student misconduct complaints. The University appealed, and in 2003, the DC Court of Appeals overturned the decision, declaring it was not the BZA’s purview to rule on the University’s disciplinary code.
The Southwest Quad also opened in fall 2003, bringing 780 students onto campus. There is a September 2003 newspaper hanging in our student newspaper office with the headline, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood: Have Georgetown’s persistent town-gown battles finally come to an end?” The short answer: absolutely not.
It helps the neighbors’ cause to pretend town-gown relations are worse than they’ve ever been, which is why some neighbors have been using this tactic for decades. The reality is, history is only repeating itself. In 1997, Mayor Marion Barry celebrated with the Georgetown ANC over their success in keeping a Papa John’s from opening in the neighborhood. In 2010, Mayor Adrian Fenty held a press conference at the shuttering of our beloved Philly Pizza.
In 1979, Citizens Association of Georgetown Vice President Thomas Parrott told the Hoya he opposed the 1980 Campus Plan because it would extend campus boundaries to include Nevils Hall. In 2011, CAG President Jennifer Altemus reminisced about her time as an undergraduate living in Nevils — while opposing the construction of University housing literally across the street.
Within historical context, it does not seem we are reaching a tipping point. Town-gown relations have ebbed and flowed for years. So we’re finalizing the ten-year plan and residents say students are taking over the neighborhood? We’re right on schedule.
“Multi-use” buildings are not the answer
Mr. Archer erroneously believes students are unhappy with the Southwest Quad and similar proposals because they are not “multi-use.” Take it from a student: we couldn’t care less.
Adding 800 beds on-campus would require building additional dorm-style accommodations, with double and triple rooms, common rooms and common bathrooms. Dorms are vastly inferior to off-campus options, which include kitchens, living rooms, single rooms, washing machines, dishwashers and all the furnishings of independent living.
We don’t care if the dining hall is an elevator-ride away or a 10-minute walk. We want our own kitchens. We want area for entertaining. We want independence. We want apartments.
Mr. Archer’s specific recommendations don’t work for students. Considering Darnall’s square-shaped floor plan, extending over Epicurean could only be marginally useful. But to any student, the proposal to expand Darnall would just be a sick joke.
Darnall is commonly considered the worst freshman dorm. Every floor houses about 50 people in 173-square-foot doubles. The beds are so close together that roommates can reach out and touch hands. For freshmen, this is fine. I myself survived Darnall Floor 1. But no upperclassmen would live there willingly. At New Student Orientation, ifsomeone says he was assigned to live in Darnall, the appropriate response is, “Oh… I’m so sorry.”
The University actually provides townhouses and several nice apartment complexes: Village A, Village B, Nevils and Henle. But apartment complexes are more expensive than dorms, and they are not as space-efficient. In 1979 the Hoya reported that building Village A cost about $58,000 per unit — $169,180 in today’s money. It’s also harder to
build apartment complexes in the tiny slivers of space the architectural firm suggested.
Likewise, the University is already using the parking lot at the end of library walk to reroute the GUTS buses, as the neighbors have demanded. If the University could add apartments on top of O’Donovan Dining Hall or the new athletic facility, maybe it would attract some interested upperclassmen. But the architects did suggest adding on to Village C, so they likely already considered adding on to other buildings as well.
Considering that expensive apartment-style accommodations are the only options that will keep students on campus, when University officials insist there is no room to build on the traditional campus, they’re not being wily. They’re being realistic.
The campus plan is a balance of sometimes competing interests: the University’s desire to expand its offerings and bring in revenue, the neighbors’ desire to preserve Georgetown’s historic character and family-friendly atmosphere, and the students’ desire for access to quality, affordable housing and state-of-the-art University facilities. This
balance requires compromise.
One seemingly obvious solution has since been taken off the table. I would like to see a reconsideration of the 1789 Block proposal, which could have housed 250 students in apartment-style accommodations. Neighbors considered this space “off-campus,” even though it is University-owned and wedged between existing classroom buildings and University housing. After their ceaseless complaints, the University relented and struck the project from the plan.
In regards to noise, Mr. Archer says, “27% of student group homes have had run-ins with the police in the past year.” Honestly, I’m surprised it’ s not more. Neighbors urge each other to call the Metropolitan Police Department about noise before even talking to their student neighbors or calling the Student Neighborhood Assistance Program.
Admittedly, parties get out of control, and destructive behavior should not be tolerated. But calling the MPD about noise complaints takes resources away from real emergencies, like the too-frequent robberies, muggings and sexual assaults.
Neighbors are also quick to blame students for houses in disrepair. I have some Burleith horror stories of my own, as CAG likes to use as evidence for their cause. When I
subletted a room this summer, we had to exterminate bedbugs and pantry moths. The landlord left us to pay for the damages.
Students don’t want to live in filth. But it’s a seller’s market. We don’t have the resources or bargaining power to advocate for ourselves, and it’s not a summer subletter’s job to take on beautification projects. More of the condemnation needs to be directed at landlords who take advantage of students and fail to maintain their property.
Most importantly, neighbors should direct their frustrations at specific problem houses rather than write off students as a group. Responding to a student question at the Campus Plan meeting last Thursday, Ms. Altemus said, “We welcome students into the neighborhood if they obey the laws.” If only she meant it.
Ms. Altemus and Mr. Archer do not decry our behavior—they decry our very presence. But under DC Code, it is illegal to discriminate against people based on their “matriculation status,” which is why the Zoning Commission struck down the overlay preventing more than three unrelated people from living together. As a group, we have as much of a right to live here as anyone else.
Finally, DC Students Speak and other involved students are making good-faith efforts to engage residents about the campus plan. About 30 students showed up to last Thursday’s meeting, and 784 people have signed a petition in support of the plan. My newspaper, the Georgetown Voice, has been attending these meetings from the very beginning. We want a stake in this community. Writing us off as a “student ghetto” doesn’t even give us the chance.