Georgetown neighbors fighting new growth plan

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 8, 2011; 10:11 PM

Campaign season is in full swing in the neighborhoods near Georgetown University. The opposing sides have mailed color pamphlets to hundreds of residents, hired consultants and sent out terse news releases. There are even yard signs.

The clash is not about an election. Instead, it's centered on the university's newly proposed 10-year plan, which was submitted last month to the D.C. Zoning Commission.

Neighbors had hoped the plan would include the construction of more residence halls, which could help reduce the number of undergraduates living in off-campus group houses. Instead, the plan envisions new or renovated academic and recreational venues, pedestrian-friendly walkways and more graduate students.

"These students are rolling into our neighborhoods, and we're losing blocks that used to be residential," said Cynthia Pantazis, a Citizens Association of Georgetown board member. "We've reached a saturation point. . . . It is catalyzing the neighbors."

Colleges and universities often struggle with their neighbors. Yet few community groups manage to push back with this level of sophistication. Many of the residents of brick-lined Georgetown, plus nearby Burleith and Foxhollow, are wealthy, well connected and familiar with the tools of shaping public opinion. When asked to describe these neighbors, university President John J. DeGioia responded with a chuckle: "This is an extraordinary community."

The ideas put forth in the extensive plan have already been debated by university and neighborhood activists during a series of meetings over the past two years. The key points of contention continue to be enrollment and housing. Georgetown has more than 7,400 undergraduates, and nearly 80 percent of them live on campus. But many neighbors want that number to be closer to 100 percent.

In the proposed plan, Georgetown has agreed to freeze the number of undergraduate students at "currently permitted levels." But to stay competitive with peer institutions, the university says it must continue growing tuition revenue by increasing the number of graduate and continuing-studies students. These students are less likely to live near campus and affect neighbors, the university says.

Past fights over campus development plans have taught Georgetown - and other D.C. universities - that it can take more than six months to clear the Zoning Commission, especially if neighbors oppose the plans. And even after the commission approves them, issues can drag on for years in court.

American University also is working on a campus plan, and neighbors there are questioning proposals to add more dorms close to residential areas, among other things. George Washington University's latest campus plan was approved by the Zoning Commission in 2007, after months of negotiations to accommodate concerns of Foggy Bottom neighbors.

Neighborhood objections already have prompted Georgetown officials to scrap plans to construct a residence hall in the neighborhood and an 83-foot utilities smokestack on campus. And at the suggestion of neighbors, the university decided to build a new road so it could route campus buses off neighborhood streets.

Georgetown officials say they have worked in recent years to address community concerns. Students who want to live off campus attend mandatory orientation sessions that include tips on being good neighbors. The university has its own patrol staff that answers neighborhood calls and breaks up parties. And it has increased the number of off-duty D.C. police officers who patrol areas near campus on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

"It's a very small number of houses that are the source of concern," DeGioia said, adding that young, troublemaking residents often aren't students. "The way that the neighborhood is set up, you are going to have young people living there."

But neighbors say the university has not done enough to control student behavior, especially late at night and on weekends. In the spring, some residents began decorating their front yards with signs reading, "Our Homes, Not GU's Dorms."

That prompted a student blog, Vox Populi, to solicit student suggestions for their own signs. The most popular were, "Georgetown University, Raising Property Values Since 1789," and "Complain to my landlord, not my school."

The debate moved to mailboxes in December, as the neighborhood association distributed a 10-page newsletter containing photos of problem houses, contact information for city officials and a map pinpointing the dozens of houses occupied by undergraduate and graduate students.

Soon after, the university submitted its proposed plan to the Zoning Commission and sent neighbors a newsletter of its own. The Georgetown and Burleith neighborhood associations responded with a joint news release expressing their disappointment with the plan.

Both sides are now gearing up for Zoning Commission meetings, which neighbors expect will begin in the next month or two.

"The community is so galvanized right now," said Jennifer Altemus, president of the citizens association. "I've never seen everyone come together like this."

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