GMU Sign Gets Wrong Kind Of Attention From Residents

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 14, 2006

Say this for the fancy sign George Mason University recently erected at Braddock and Sideburn roads: As an attention-getter, it's doing the job.

The sign, which stands about as tall as a two-story house and flashes giant video images in color, has been alerting passersby to campus events with the sort of razzle-dazzle one might expect from a university with big plans and a new national identity.

But residents in the Kings Park West and Country Club View neighborhoods have been complaining since the sign went up in August. They say it's too big and too glitzy and might be a dangerous distraction for drivers along a curvy stretch of Braddock Road.

"The typical complaint is, it's Las Vegas -- what is it doing in this neighborhood?" said William Barfield, president of the Country Club View Civic Association.

University officials revealed their interest in putting a sign at the intersection while discussing their overall growth plans during a Braddock District Council meeting about six months ago. But few, including county officials, picked up on it, and many residents said they were surprised. It was a big surprise: 13 feet 6 inches wide and 25 feet high.

"One day it's not there, and the next day it is," said Anthony Vellucci, president of the Kings Park West Civic Association.

Barfield, whose association represents about 480 houses, said the sign conveys another unwelcome message: The university is becoming a behemoth whose growth threatens to overwhelm its neighbors.

"I think that's an unfair characterization," said Christine LaPaille, a George Mason spokeswoman. She said the school has demonstrated its interest in cooperating with neighbors and informing them of its plans. Still, she said, the university could do more.

"It's going to be a thing I'm going to work on in the coming year, improving the dialogue with community leaders," LaPaille said. An irony, she said, is that the $320,000, two-sided sign was intended to respond to frequent requests from the community for information about upcoming campus events.

George Mason got a fizzy taste of national attention this year when its underdog basketball team reached the NCAA Final Four. The school also has been raising its profile in other ways.

With 30,000 students spread over three campuses in Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William counties, GMU, which was known for years mostly as a commuter school, now boasts a prominent law school and Nobel laureate faculty members in other fields.

Plans include spending $400 million over five years on construction, renovation and growth.

"We want to work with Mason," Vellucci said. "We understand they have growth plans, and no one wants to stop this growth, but we just want to make sure it's smart growth."

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock), who represents the area, said most neighbors recognize GMU's benefit to the community.

"George Mason has been a very good neighbor, and I'm proud they're in my district," Bulova said. "The university is very generous with its facilities."

Bulova said she also understands her constituents' annoyance. She has arranged several meetings between the school and the community to discuss the sign. In addition, she has set up forums to discuss broader issues of coexistence between the school and its neighbors. The next is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Oct. 3 at Kings Park Library, 9000 Burke Lake Rd., in Burke.

It's not clear what, if anything, can be done about the sign. Officials said their options are limited because the sign is on school property. As a state institution, the school is not subject to local zoning regulations -- something neighbors knew well before the sign was installed.

"I think we're going to have to live with it," Barfield said.

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