Go to Main District of Columbia Page

American University Park:
Living and Learning
At a Higher Level

By Angela E. Couloumbis
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 10, 1996

As the story goes, American University Park was once an open field dotted with farmhouses. Or it might have been an apple orchard. Or maybe a tract of land owned by the Methodist Church and reserved for its clergy. Or even all of the above.

The version differs depending on whom one asks since much of the neighborhood's history has been passed on by word of mouth to a new generation of residents that has moved into this enclave of 2,700 homes in Northwest Washington.

In the last 10 years American University Park, bounded by Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Western avenues, has opened its arms to a steady stream of couples with young children, contributing to what residents call the "regeneration" of the neighborhood.

"When I moved in, I was the youngest person around," said Carol Owens, 60, who has lived in AU Park for 24 years. "In the last 10 years there has been a huge turnover. Many of the residents who moved here when the neighborhood was built have passed away. Now, Halloween at my house looks like a kindergarten."

Owens said that what she knows about the neighborhood's past comes from conversations she has had over the years with longtime residents. In the early 1920s, Owens said, the Methodist church owned much of what today is American University Park, and built a series of small, wooden cottages for members of its clergy. By the early 1930s the church sold parts of the land to private developers who by the end of the next decade, had built mid-sized, brick colonial homes on almost every lot of American University Park.

That is not to say the homes in AU Park all look alike, said Paul Strauss, chairman of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission for the community and a resident of AU Park for nearly 10 years. Most houses display a variety of additions, some boasting wood and stone fronts, bay windows, solar rooms and spacious back yards.

Longtime resident John Kokus said all the houses built after 1941 had central hallways with steel beams on either side for support, making them architecturally different from other houses in the Washington area and, it was said, sturdy enough to last more than a century.

"This area was built at a time [1930s] when people put creativity into the homes they built," Strauss said. "And over the years, the residents have added to the original foundation, giving this neighborhood a character all its own."

During last week's snowstorm residents of all ages put on heavy clothing and grabbed shovels to dig paths to front doors or clear driveways. A hush had descended on the area, and aside from the scraping sound of metal against pavement or the occasional grumbling about the weather, the only sound audible was the chirping of birds perched on the high branches of the 50-foot oaks that line most blocks south of Massachusetts Avenue.

Over the years, residents have tried to preserve the suburban feel of the neighborhood, one of the area's major real estate attractions. On most days, one can see young children walking to school, or parents pushing strollers on the sidewalks, Owens said. The houses, mostly small- to mid-sized detached homes, are well-kept but somewhat pricey. From August 1993 to last month, 259 houses were sold at an average price of $291,713, said Ellen McPherson, principal broker of Metropolitan Properties Ltd.

The availability and relative affordability of many of the houses in the area has attracted a younger generation looking to live in the city without too many of the hassles of urban living, Owens said.

"This is a quiet, attractive neighborhood where you find the best of both worlds," said Charles Ruttenberg, an AU Park resident since 1963. "You're a 15-minute drive from downtown Washington, yet you still feel that you're far enough away from the city that you can get away from the crowds and the noise."

But AU Park's proximity to American University, coupled with the university's recent purchase of the large office-commercial complex at the intersection of Massachusetts and 48th Street, has strained relations between the two neighbors. Where once town and gown communities lived harmoniously, the relationship has soured over the last two years.

The story behind the dispute dates to the late 1970s. AU Park and surrounding community residents had protested a developer's planned construction of a multifloor commercial structure at 4801 Massachusetts Ave. and attempted through a lawsuit to persuade the developers to scale down their plans. The residents lost in court and the building was completed as planned.

Enter the 1980s and the American Bar Association's evaluation of AU's Law School as having first-class academic standards but a second-rate facility. That set off the university's search for a new site for its Washington College of Law. University officials initially considered relocating the law school to what then was the Immaculata High School campus at Wisconsin and Nebraska Avenues. Surrounding communities protested. So AU began planning to build the law facility across from its Massachusetts Avenue main gate to replace a complex of temporary buildings called the Cassel Center. Another round of negotiation and litigation followed, which ended in a court decision authorizing AU to build a structure to replace the Cassel Center.

It was not to be. In the 1990s AU's administration decided instead to buy the 4801 Massachusetts facility after its owners filed for bankruptcy protection. Surrounding communities mobilized, claiming the law school would bring unwanted traffic, noise and congestion. The residents lost a court battle and AU renovated the building. Classes started there last month. Meanwhile, another lawsuit seeking to limit the class size of AU's law school is pending.

"Prior to this dispute, we went our way and the university went theirs, and we coexisted side by side," said Neil Siegel, who moved into AU Park 20 years ago. "Today, this dispute tends to exacerbate the differences and ignore all the compatibilities that exist between our communities. But the university created the problem, and the university can solve it. It's in their hands."

The university, for its part, is well on the way to addressing the concerns of the surrounding communities, said David Taylor, AU's spokesman. Traffic will not dramatically increase given that law classes span the course of the week and are offered at different times of the day, Taylor said. There are 300 parking spaces available in the building's garage and frequent AU shuttle bus runs to and from the Metro station at Tenleytown.

"We are making adjustments to do things properly and in good faith," Taylor said. "We want to be a positive presence in the community and we are doing everything to ensure that fears will not be realized."

What remains, said Thorn Pozen, an AU Park resident and a first-year law student at American, is to work together with the university to find middle ground on issues ranging from traffic to parking to sharing the area's resources.

"The school isn't going anywhere," Pozen said. "The community's fears are legitimate, but all these problems are solvable. What we need to do now is bring people from both sides together and go forward."

© 1996 The Washington Post Co.

Back to top