Correction to This Article
An Aug. 12 Business column about the vacant site adjacent to George Washington University Hospital misstated its size. The plot is 2.6 acres, not 10 acres.

Square 54, a New Site for an Ongoing Feud

The old George Washington University Hospital building was demolished and the new hospital built across the street.
The old George Washington University Hospital building was demolished and the new hospital built across the street. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, August 12, 2005

One of the most bitter and longest-running political feuds in the District features an expansionist George Washington University and a group of stubbornly anti-growth residents of Foggy Bottom. A decade ago, this quarrel forced public broadcaster WETA to scrub plans to return to the city, in a joint development with GWU. Now it is about to play itself out again, this time over redevelopment of one of the District's choicest parcels: the old George Washington University Hospital site in the West End.

The approval process for development of "Square 54" presents a rare opportunity for Mayor Anthony A. Williams -- himself a Foggy Bottom resident -- to put things right.

A chance to make clear that the city as a whole has a strong interest in the success of GWU and its other universities, which are integral to the city's economic strategy.

A chance to acknowledge that the natural growth of the city now demands greater density and urbanization in Foggy Bottom, particularly within the confines of the GWU campus, even if [that] goes against the natural preferences of its neighbors for fewer people, less traffic and smaller buildings.

And a chance not just to update the university's master plan -- including limits on students and requirements for new dorm rooms -- but also add real teeth to enforcement provisions if the university fails to comply, as it has done repeatedly and flagrantly in the past.

Map: Washington Circle
At this point, GWU officials figure they need to build at least 2 million square feet of residential and classroom space to upgrade programs and the university in compliance with its agreements with the city. With the District's approval, it might be able to cram close to half of that in the 10 acres of Square 54.

But the university argues that with its Pennsylvania Avenue address and its proximity to the Foggy Bottom Metro stop, Square 54 is simply too valuable as a site for high-end commercial development to be used for its own purposes. Instead, it proposes to hire a pair of classy developers (Boston Properties and KSI) and a world-class architecture firm (Cesar Pelli & Associates) to design and build a $250 million, mixed-use development with offices facing Washington Circle, high-end apartments in the back and plenty of ground-level retail all around. Roughly speaking, the lease payments the university would receive from the developers of the 800,000-square-foot project could finance a million square feet or more of classrooms and dorms somewhere else.

All of that, however, would require zoning variances, to allow not only greater density on Square 54 than the zoning now allows, but also greater density on the rest of the campus than allowed by the university's current master plan. And that's where the politics comes in.

The diehards on Foggy Bottom Association, flush with $2.8 million extracted from developers of the Columbia Hospital project, have already decided to boycott the university's elaborate planning process for Square 54 and are preparing for a long political and legal battle to stop any commercial development. While they claim to speak for D.C. residents and taxpayers, waging the good fight against the greedy and politically powerful, in reality they are just a narrow interest group determined to settle old scores, preserve the status quo and scuttle a project that could generate an extra $10 million a year for the District in tax revenue while bringing a badly needed supermarket and other retail amenities to the neighborhood.

That's not to say the university's proposal for Square 54 is good to go. As now conceived, the balance of office space, housing and retail for Square 54 is too heavily tilted toward office space -- about 450,000 square feet, compared with 250,000 for residential and 80,000 for retail. With office rents at least 25 percent above apartment rents, that balance makes sense for the university, as landowner, and Boston Properties, as the project manager and office developer. But from the standpoint of a city trying to increase its population of wealthy income-tax-paying residents, Square 54 -- with its downtown location and proximity to the Metro and Georgetown -- the bigger payoff would come from luxury apartments, not office space.

Or think of it this way: More residents would mean more potential recruits for the Foggy Bottom Association, all the better to oppose GWU's next expansion.

Steven Pearlstein can be reached at

© 2005 The Washington Post Company