IMAGINE A CITY telling its largest private employer — one that pays millions in taxes and salaries, strives to hire local residents and voluntarily does community service — that it can’t grow anymore, that it might have to cut back. That seems far-fetched in light of today’s scary economy, but it’s essentially what D.C. officials are telling Georgetown University by insisting it either house all its students or cut back enrollment. The District seems distressingly disinterested in promoting a knowledge-based economy.
Georgetown’s 10-year plan for its 104-acre main campus, the subject of hearings before the D.C. Zoning Commission, would cap the undergraduate population at current levels while increasing graduate students by about 1,000. Enrollment in 2010 was 14,033, of whom 6,652 were undergraduates. The plan is modest: It contains no major new building, no additional parking and an offer to reduce the main campus enrollment by moving some graduate students to satellite locations. Still, adjacent neighborhoods — particularly Burleith and Foxhall — are up in arms, and they seem to have city officials on their side.
A recommendation by the city’s office of planning would require the university to provide housing for 100 percent of its undergraduate students by 2016; failure to do so would force cuts in enrollment starting in 2015. Georgetown houses a higher percentage (84 percent) of undergraduates on its campus than most of the other universities in the city. Not only is it unfair to hold Georgetown to this new standard, but it’s unrealistic to expect the school to raise the money or find appropriate sites. The city’s suggestion that the university consider an off-campus site outside the university’s Zip code (Arlington?) is laughable.
What’s most troubling about the city’s posture is the notion that an increase in young people, particularly those in search of an education, is somehow undesirable. What happened to the idea that these are the very kind of people that should be lured to make the District their home? Here’s how Sally Kram of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area put it in testimony supporting Georgetown: “Given that students are one of the District’s most assured conduits for new residents — a lifeline for any urban community — it seems particularly odd that the District’s Office of Planning seems committed to restricting student growth, particularly graduate and continuing education students.”
There is no question that the neighborhoods surrounding Georgetown have some legitimate complaints. There have been issues of noise and litter and other problems by students living off-campus. But the solution isn’t to banish students or punish the university. Georgetown has increased police, provided additional garbage pickup and disciplined chronic troublemakers. Besides, for all the complaints, the neighborhoods — which, it must be pointed out, came long after the university — still are desirable places with steady demographics and increased home prices.
In the fine balance that must be weighed between town and gown interests, city officials tipped the scale too far. It will up to the zoning commission to right that balance when it makes its decision next year.