George Washington University's plans to close a one-block section of I Street, between 23d and 24th Streets NW, and turn it into a pedestrian mall and park will be the subject of a second public hearing Mar. 22.
It is also another skirmish in the running battle between the university and the dwindling number of town house residents in Washington's Foggy Bottom neighborhood west of the White House.
Residents fear not that G.W. will spend $120,000 to create a pleasant park in what has been a little-used street, says Harold Davitt, chairman of the Foggy Bottom Advisory Neighborhood Commission, "but that G.W. is in it for the zoning benefit, which would allow them to build a more massive building at the other end of campus."
It is the first of two one-block sections of I Street that the university's long-range master plan, already approved by the National Capital Planning Commission, proposes turning into parks. The other section, between 20th and 21st Streets, is still in the planning stages.
University vice president and treasurer Charles Diehl says the permanent closing of the 23d-24th Street block - the street has been close "temporarily" now for four years because of Metro construction - would add to the open space and park area in Foggy Bottom.
"It would give us a trade-off of something like 60,000 square feet which we could build some place else on campus," says Diehl, "but that's a minuscule amount when you consider the university already has some 4 million square feet."
Planning commission spokesman Samuel K. Frazier said that when the university's master plan was approved in 1970, including street closings, the be a zoning benefit to the university "but that it would be a small one."
However, Frazier said this week that the university could reap an additional benefit and erect a larger building beside the street park, although university officials say they have no intention of doing so.
The 2300 block of I Street has a residential-commercial zone that permits a building to occupy a maximum of 75 per cent of a lot, with 25 per cent in open space.If the street is included as part of the now vacant lot on the north side of the street a much larger building could be constructed. But Diehl said this week, "It is not our intent to occupy more than 75 per cent of the existing lot" even if the street is given to the university.
Diehl said "just about everybody's for this, we thought it would be opposition-free, but it's gotten so all the university has to do is say we want to do something and people say, 'whoa.'"
The Foggy Bottom Advisory Neighborhood Commission, one of 30 ANCs elected last year to advise the mayor on just about anything happening locally, has been "concerned about the destruction of the neighborhood," says Chairman Davitt. The ANC met last week on university plans to tear down town houses to build a commercial office building for the World Bank and met Tuesday to discuss the street closing.
"There are issues between the university and the neighborhood," admits vice president Diehl, an almost inevitable conflict between a growing downtown section of the nation's capital and an old neighborhood of row houses.
The university is currently proposing to tear down two groups of town houses, several at 19th and F Streets for the World Bank building and three in the 2000 block of I Street which have just been included in the city's Historic District, as has much of the block.
The town houses in the 2000 block of I Street, where the university plans call for a street closing - when the university owns all property on both sides of the street or gets other owners to agree to the street closing - were bought by the university for investment purposes as a means of increasing the school's endowment and income, says Diehl. "That area is assessed at more than $5 million an acre."
The closing of I Street to create a park "is something not too many people are opposed to," says ANC chairman Davitt. "The question is not whether you want it open or closed but in what way should it be closed. Many would like to see it closed but with no other benefit to the university."
The Mar. 22 hearing to be held by the City Council's Committee on Transportation and the Environment at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 2430 K St. NW, at 7:30 p.m., is being held in the effected neighborhood to encourage residents to speak out on the issue. The first meeting was held Nov. 9 at City Hall.