As Cambridge is to Harvard and Charlottesville is to the University of Virginia, so Fairfax City is becoming to George Mason University.
Willingly or not.
Local visionaries believe that as George Mason emerges as a bustling state university, it can give Fairfax City a college-town identity, helping it stand out from the surrounding suburban sprawl and providing it with a tremendous cultural and economic boon.
But not everyone is happy with the way things are growing at George Mason, particularly neighbors on the north end of the main campus, which is in Fairfax County just on the Fairfax City line. Many homeowners in the Green Acres subdivison say they thought they were buying into a quiet neighborhood 20 years ago and never expected to have a large university at their doorsteps.
Moreover, the city faces a new set of college-related problems: complaints stemming from parking, traffic, off-campus housing and rowdy behavior by students who frequent the bars and restaurants that are springing up around town. Tension between Fairfax City residents and George Mason students is mounting as the university continues its phenomenal growth.
George Mason has expanded from 2,390 students in 1970 to 14,200 today -- almost six times its earlier size.
"One of the problems when you have a new university growing up next door is you don't have the tradition of being a college town," said Robert Norris, acting Fairfax City manager.
The city lacks certain specialty shops, such as bookstores, common in university towns, and residents are unaware of the cultural offerings on the campus, Norris said.
Perhaps the biggest town-gown problem right now, though, is parking and traffic on residential streets near the campus, a problem tied to the fact that George Mason is largely a commuter school. University officials say 95 percent of George Mason's students drive to their classes.
Last month, the City Council received a petition signed by 70 residents of Green Acres, complaining about students who park along University Drive, Forest Avenue, Cleveland Street and other streets bordering the campus.
"We have no objection to having the university here, but the big problem is that our neighborhood has been turned into a race track," said Roxa Lee Weese, who lives on Forest Avenue. "They block the driveways, turn their cars in the driveways and then hop a fence, cross the lawn and go through a yard or two to hit campus."
The situation became worse this fall, residents said, when the university raised its on-campus parking fee from $3 to $15 a year. Students whose cars line the streets also say it's almost impossible to find a space in the university's crowded lots if they arrive after 9 a.m. George Mason officials dispute that claim, arguing that parking space is available to students willing to walk an extra five minutes from outlying lots.
Donald Mash, vice president for student affairs at George Mason, said the university now has 3,500 parking spaces on the main campus and 200 more will be completed next month. Plans for another 2,000 spaces are on the drawing board, but the university must receive approval from the Virginia General Assembly before it can issue $2 million in revenue bonds to finance the new lots, Mash said.
The City Council last year considered a parking permit system for the Green Acres area, but at the time the residents balked at the idea. Now that the parking problem has surfaced again, however, Norris said it is likely the council will adopt some type of residential parking permit.
At a public hearing Tuesday night, residents detailed to the council their comments on the proposed hours of parking restrictions and on whether residents should pay for the decals.
Green Acres residents also are bothered by the increasing number of student tenants in the neighborhood.
"This area is gradually being converted into Fraternity Row because the students are taking over vacant houses," said Charles Roberts, a longtime resident of Cleveland Street. Roberts and his neighbors can identify about six student houses within a block of their homes, but neither university nor city officials keep figures on exactly how many students are renting houses near the campus.
Local real estate agents say students can rent a brick rambler in the neighborhood for as low as $450 a month and split the cost four ways, an inexpensive alternative to living at home with their parents. Some student houses in the University Drive area are fixed up stylishly with castoffs from parents; others have been known to have extra refrigerators just for beer.
Carl Hemmer, a City Council member who is chairman of the City-University-Business Coordinating Committee (CUB), said city leaders are worried that a student ghetto could develop and depress property values in the area.
To avoid that, Hemmer said, the city attorney is examining the city's zoning ordinance to decide whether it would be legal to change the regulation that no more than four unrelated individuals may live in the same dwelling.
In another move to ease the housing situation, council members this month plan to ask local delegates to the Virginia General Assembly to push for state approval of the construction of more dormitories on campus. Currently, 700 students live on campus, and by January there will be room for 300 more, with the completion of a new dormitory, Mash said.
He said the university wants to add 500 more rooms, but it needs state approval to issue $10 million in revenue bonds for construction of new residence halls.
Although homeowners have dubbed University Drive "Frat Row," only one fraternity actually owns a house off campus, and it is not on University Drive. The Kappa Sigma fraternity last year purchased a house on Roberts Road just outside the city limits, and at least one other Greek organization reportedly is looking for a house.
Four fraternities and four sororities currently have chapters at George Mason, and college administrators say the community can expect more off-campus Greek houses in the future.
Local officials said they have not encountered problems from fraternities and sororities, but, said City Manager Norris, "If we end up with a Delta House (the raucous fraternity in the movie "Animal House") in this city, I'll be the first one to do something about it."
Rowdiness is a definite problem in the city, officials say, primarily in the Main Street-Route 123 downtown area where several taverns and restaurants cater to the college crowd. Last winter, police began walking beats on weekends in that area, about a mile from the main campus, in an attempt to crack down on rowdiness and public drunkenness.
The number of arrests for such offenses has increased substantially since the city doubled the number of patrolmen on the streets between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, said Fairfax City Police Lt. James Denny -- but the number of complaints has increased as well.
The city council has discussed a proposed ordinance to prohibit the clustering of taverns in one area, but no action has been taken on this idea.
Although Denny said many complaints about boisterous behavior are directed at college students, Mash said it is wrong to assume that every college-aged person involved in such incidents is a George Mason student.
"There is a lack of understanding on the part of many people about the nature of the student body," Mash said. Unlike other universities, George Mason has an enrollment with an average age of 28, he said, and a good proportion of the students are over 30 and preparing for second careers or working on advanced degrees.
Lt. Denny said the perception of problems by George Mason's neighbors often is far worse than the truth. Homeowners near University Drive, for instance, contend there are more traffic accidents in their area than in other parts of the city, but Denny said police statistics do not support that impression.
Still, city officials are sympathetic with George Mason's neighbors, aware that they had no way of predicting 20 years ago that their peaceful, bucolic neighborhood would be adjacent to a large university.
Although Fairfax City gave the state the land for the university in the late 1950s, "I can't believe anyone envisioned what was going to come," Hemmer said. "This area hadn't even reached its peak growth yet. Predictions were hard to come by then."
George Mason's main campus borders Fairfax County territory as well, but county authorities say neighbors on other sides of the university have not complained about the problems annoying people who live on the more densely populated Fairfax City boundary. Neither have such problems surfaced near the smaller north campus, on Route 50 in Fairfax City, nor around the law school-graduate center in Arlington.
But the Fairfax City Council, witnessing the rapid growth of George Mason and anticipating friction between the city and university, formed the CUB Committee in 1979 as a means of communication among college, city and business leaders.
Their first major project was the CUE (City-University Energysaver) bus, which runs between the university's main and north campuses and around the city. The bus, sponsored by the city and university, is free to George Mason students, faculty and staff members and 25 cents a ride to city residents.
"There are 1,100 faculty, students and staff members at George Mason living within the city," Norris said. "The idea is to get them to take the bus to school rather than drive."
George Mason officials said they also want to let more Fairfax City residents know about opportunities offered them on campus: movies, concerts, athletic events and the Barter Theatre, Virginia's state theater. Mash said the university also has invited its neighbors to use the college library.
Students have been taking advantage of city attractions as well. There is a booming college-oriented bar and restaurant trade. The Library, a popular downtown bar and restaurant, offers "College Night" on Wednesdays and "Co-ed Night" on Tuesdays. The Havabite Eatery on Main Street has begun delivery service of pizza and sandwiches to students in the George Mason dormitories.
As the number of students living on campus increases, more businesses seem to be focusing on the college market. "We're trying to make the business community aware of this tremendous buyer pool sitting right outside the city limits," Norris said.
For a businessman interested in cashing in on the college market, the prospects should be bright. Mash said enrollment at George Mason is expected to reach 17,500 by 1985 and 20,000 by 1990 -- a daytime student roll equal to Fairfax City's current population. In terms of physical growth, the university will ask the Virginia General Assembly next year for funds to build an academic and an administration building on the 571-acre main campus, as well as permission to issue bonds for new parking lots and dormitories, Mash said.
"We have aspirations of becoming the cultural, social and academic center of Northern Virginia," he said. "There's no question that the immediate neighborhood bordering the campus has problems with what we're doing, but we would hope the advantages of living next to a university would outweigh the inconveniences."