By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 3, 2008
George Mason University will build a 150-room hotel and conference center in central Fairfax County, furthering the college's metamorphosis from regional campus to national institution but also igniting tension with surrounding residential communities.
The $30 million George Mason Inn, to be owned by the university and financed with state-backed bonds, will rise seven stories above Chain Bridge Road on GMU's largest of three Northern Virginia campuses. University officials said the project will fill a long-standing need for meeting space and overnight accommodations on a campus that hosts world-class academic conferences and is visited by more than 3 million people each year.
"It's a symbol of where we are," said Christine LaPaille, GMU's vice president of university relations. "I know that in the past, people have described us as up-and-coming. We think a hotel and conference center and some of the other facilities being planned for this campus are indicators that we have arrived."
Seen until recently as a commuter school, GMU has experienced explosive growth in enrollment this decade, accompanied by a construction boom of dormitories, labs and other research space. With 30,000 students and an annual research budget of $68 million, the university now boasts of its designation by the Carnegie Foundation as a "high research activity" school, in the company of such mature universities as Rutgers, Auburn and Clemson.
GMU is also adjusting to another reality for large and growing universities: town-gown tensions. Friction with surrounding neighborhoods started several years ago with complaints about the impact of student rental properties on suburban neighborhoods. Then came the huge electronic sign on Braddock Road. Now the focus is the plan for a hotel, which to the chagrin of some neighbors will show its back to Chain Bridge Road.
Construction on the George Mason Inn is scheduled to begin by summer. If the project stays on schedule, the hotel and conference center will open in spring 2010. It will be operated by Aramark Harrison Lodging, which runs several similar university-based conference centers. The complex will feature a restaurant, lounge and technologically up-to-date conference space.
The university has met with community leaders to share its plans and hear their concerns. But those leaders say officials haven't been willing to change much in response to those concerns.
"The university brings many, many benefits to the region," said Clifford Keenan, president of the civic association of nearby Country Club View. "They do a very good job communicating with us, a much better job than several years ago. But they're pretty unbending, because they don't have to bend. From our perspective, that's the biggest frustration."
Fairfax County Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock) shares that view. Bulova created a discussion group a few years ago to bring together Mason officials and community leaders to respond to neighborhood concerns.
But the group got off to a horrible start, Bulova said, when the new Mason sign appeared on Braddock Road with no advance notice to anyone in the county.
GMU refused to move the sign, which stands 11 feet from Braddock Road. And it didn't have to, because, as a state-owned university, it is not subject to local zoning laws. (The university did agree to limit the hours the sign's lights are on.)
Similarly, the university was not required to submit its hotel and conference center plans to Fairfax for review. The plans were reviewed and approved by state officials, but Bulova and some surrounding neighbors would have liked to have had a say on the project's impact on traffic, the environment and other issues, they said.
"We're appreciative of the opportunity to have a discussion," Bulova said. "It's better than it was. But it would have been nice if we'd had a little bit more discussion earlier rather than later."
Mason officials think they have reached out adequately to the surrounding neighborhoods.
"We're in a partnership with the community," said GMU spokesman Daniel Walsch. "There's a lot of dialoguing and accommodating going on in order for us to be a good neighbor. Hopefully that works both ways. We don't always follow everything they say, but we try to be as sensitive to their concerns as possible."