As GMU Grows, So Do Neighbors' Worries

Rosalio Molina works on a portion of the ongoing expansion of George Mason University.
Rosalio Molina works on a portion of the ongoing expansion of George Mason University. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Tony Vellucci always regarded George Mason University as a good neighbor for his central Fairfax County community.

There were the inevitable town-gown irritants: heavy traffic along Chain Bridge (Route 123) and Braddock roads during big campus events, and rowdy or poorly maintained student rental houses. In the main, though, he believed that Fairfax and the state's largest public university coexisted reasonably well.

Then Vellucci, a longtime community association leader, attended a PowerPoint presentation in May, listening as a school official described the $400 million in construction and renovation planned for the next five years. Residence halls for more than 1,000 additional students. A 150-room hotel and conference center. Faculty and staff housing. A 160,000-square-foot information technology and engineering building. Additions to Patriot Center.

Suddenly, that old neighborly feeling wasn't quite the same.

"They're looking at it in a very gown-oriented way" said Vellucci, who works for Northrop Grumman and lives in Kings Park West, a neighborhood of $500,000 homes on tree-lined streets and cul-de-sacs a few minutes from campus.

"Nobody is looking at the town side," he said. If that doesn't happen, "it's going to be very ugly for all of us."

George Mason, which stunned the sports world by sending its basketball team to the NCAA Final Four this year, is preparing to raise its profile in more profound and lasting ways. And its Fairfax neighbors are beginning to organize so that they are not overwhelmed by the school's growth. Meetings are scheduled for the fall so a coalition of neighborhood groups can learn more about what's happening at Mason and ensure their participation.

With nearly 30,000 students spread over three campuses (Fairfax and Arlington and Prince William counties), Mason is a cultural and economic power in Northern Virginia. It generates both cachet and cash in the form of a nationally prominent law school, Nobel Prize-winning faculty members and an estimated $600 million a year in payroll, purchasing and student spending.

Now, Mason is attempting to inject new energy and identity into Fairfax, to transform a pleasantly generic suburban campus into a more vibrant venue for learning.

The most visible work in progress is the $75 million redevelopment underway along Patriot Circle in the northeast part of the campus. The first of the new residential units will be ready for fall 2007. Although Mason will remain largely a school of commuters, its residential population, now about 4,000, is expected to hit 5,500 by 2008 and 7,000 by 2012, placing it, officials say, in the top 100 of the nation's universities.

The expansion, funded by bonds, state appropriations, student fees and private gifts, is testament not only to anticipated enrollment but painstaking market research. It will cater to undergrads as scholars and "high-expectation consumers," in the words of Senior Vice President Maurice W. Scherrens.

That means the new housing will be geared to students who grew up accustomed to having Starbucks, wood-fired pizza and CVS stores five minutes from their front door and who will expect the same at college. The street level will be filled with signature food and retail outlets, as well as a fitness center.

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