American University's plan to add dorm space irks neighbors

By Megan Buerger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2010; 12:10 AM

American University administrators and neighbors are locked in a 16-month battle over the drafting of the school's 2011 Campus Plan, a collection of proposals for improving the school's facilities that is drafted every 10 years. The new plan calls for increasing on-campus student beds by about 900, which residents say they fear would greatly increase traffic, noise and the size of university buildings that border their neighborhoods.

Beginning in July 2009, university officials, residents and representatives of the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission have attended monthly task force meetings to discuss the plan's progress and exchange ideas. The discussions have become increasingly heated as the tentative date approaches for the university to present the plan to the D.C. Zoning Commission, a date the university has most recently designated for March.

Despite the monthly sessions, community residents say the university has been unreceptive to their concerns.

"To be honest, there was a period of time during this process when I thought the university was declaring war on the community," said Tom Smith, a member of the ANC, whose area includes the Spring Valley, Wesley Heights and Foxhall neighborhoods, as well as the university. "The university could not have composed a more offensive campus plan if they tried."

The source of the conflict is the university's intention to bring students living off campus, such as in the Berkshire apartments on Massachusetts Avenue NW, back on campus, a move that would require major dormitory renovation.

University officials maintain that they are not looking to significantly increase the undergraduate population but rather to better accommodate students who already attend the university.

"We need to pull our students back onto campus," said David Taylor, longtime chief of staff to American's president, Cornelius M. Kerwin. "We have a mandate from the Zoning Commission that says we have to demonstrate the ability to house two-thirds of our undergraduate students on campus. We are able to meet those numbers now only through tripling rooms, housing 200 students in the Berkshire apartments on Massachusetts Avenue through an AU lease and placing 500 students on our Tenley Campus."

University administrators say that triples - rooms originally intended to house two students that have been altered to fit three because of space constraints - are not appropriate options for students.

The plan also proposes a relocation of AU's graduate law students from their building on Massachusetts Avenue to the Tenley Campus site, displacing the 500 undergraduate students housed there.

"In all, we're seeking to better accommodate these students on our campus - around 1,000 who are already here," Taylor said. "It has been an evolution, and it continues to be. There is plenty of opportunity to present your feelings; it's all part of the clarity process."

But for neighbors, the potential shifts in student housing would hit a little too close to home.

"I was shocked when I got involved," said Ann Carson, a resident of Wesley Heights. "The university is planning on demolishing two buildings right outside my dining-room window. They want to replace two-story dorms with six-story dorms, adding something like 2,000 more students right outside my door. These neighborhoods have elderly couples who are just devastated. They can't cope."

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