Grae Baxter and Steve McClain are next-door neighbors on W Street in the fashionable Foxhall section of Northwest Washington. They're at war with each other, and it's because of their neighbor across the street.
That would be George Washington University, which bought the old Mount Vernon women's college at Foxhall Road and W Street last year. Baxter, the school's dean, is championing a 10-year expansion of the 23-acre campus. McClain is a neighborhood leader fighting the makeover, saying it would add traffic and ruin the natural beauty of one of Washington's prettiest areas, where the median home value is about $500,000.
"It's a quiet street," Baxter said of W.
"If you take that away, people won't come here to live," McClain countered.
Three nearby private schools also are in the midst of renovations and expansions, guaranteeing years of disruption in a wide area of Foxhall, Palisades and Wesley Heights, parts of which already fill up with commuter and school traffic.
The recent opening of a fifth school in the area, the Rock Creek International School, has worsened traffic on Foxhall and dumped drivers looking for alternative routes onto busy MacArthur Boulevard. McClain fears that tranquil residential streets such as W are next.
On one level, GWU's planned expansion at its Mount Vernon campus highlights the school's growing reach in Washington and how the university's ambition is colliding with residents' desires.
GWU plans to break ground Wednesday on a $96 million teaching hospital across the street from the old one, infuriating many Foggy Bottom neighbors. The school bought the old Howard Johnson's hotel across from the Watergate complex to use as a dormitory. In all, the university has 28 construction projects underway and an additional 22 projects in design.
But the debate over George Washington's plans for the Mount Vernon campus also reflects the District's shortcomings in coordinating redevelopment. The city, for example, is not examining the overall impact of the GWU expansion combined with projects at the three other schools nearby, an omission that area residents said overlooks the big picture as to how the changes could affect life in their neighborhoods.
"All of these projects are looked at piecemeal, as individual projects," said Gene Godley, a resident of the Foxhall Crescent neighborhood, whose residents are concerned about access to Foxhall if the school expansions go through. "Unless you look at everything comprehensively, you don't know what the impact is going to be. It could disturb our quality of life and access to the city."
Mayor Anthony A. Williams's newly appointed planning director agreed, though he declined to take a side in the GWU expansion until he has more time to examine it.
"Planning shouldn't be ad hoc," said Andrew Altman, who just arrived from a similar position in Oakland, Calif. "It's absolutely essential that transportation planning and land-use planning be in sync, and that's going to be a high priority for me."
The neighbors aren't trying to stop GWU from renovating a 120-year-old campus that Baxter said was "a slum" when the university bought it. They are asking the city's zoning board to delay its hearing, scheduled for November, until the university agrees to a list of concessions that the neighbors said would protect them from increased noise and traffic, the loss of dozens of old-growth trees and what they consider to be the massive scale of the proposed residential, athletics and educational buildings.
"We're not opposed to universities," said McClain, a real estate broker. "We're not opposed to students or education. We're opposed to aggressive, ill-conceived development." He is worried that property values will plummet in the neighborhood if GWU's plan is approved as proposed, he added.
University officials are surprised at the vehemence of their foes, because they believe the neighborhood is getting a better deal with GWU than it had with Mount Vernon College, which was near bankruptcy and had no money for upkeep.
Over 10 years, GWU hopes to add dorms, a women's softball field, tennis courts and underground parking while upgrading classrooms, a soccer/lacrosse field and the internal road network. No more than 1,000 full-time students would attend classes there, most of whom would ride shuttles to and from the main Foggy Bottom campus, which has about 19,000 students. There now are 500 students at the liberal arts satellite campus.
"I can guarantee this campus will look beautiful when it's done," Baxter said of the Mount Vernon grounds, buffered by trees and dominated by two gently sloping hills, a contrast to GWU's more urban campus in Foggy Bottom. "Anyone who knows GW knows it is very appearance-sensitive. We're conscious of our image."
The image of GWU in the Foxhall-Palisades community is negative, as a recent neighborhood meeting of 150 people at Sibley Hospital showed.
Residents confronted Baxter about what they said was a lack of complete answers about the university's plans for Mount Vernon. They asked for a lower cap on the number of students who would use the satellite campus, a reduction in the height and amount of buildings planned there, the immediate closing of the school's W Street entrance, and the opening of an entrance on Whitehaven Parkway.
"You can't chip away at the edges of our communities and not let us in on it," Penny Pagano, a resident of Berkeley Terrace, which abuts the campus, said after the meeting. "Is it fair to ask us to undergo construction for 10 years? Or is there a better way to do it?"
Baxter said that when GWU officials began discussing Mount Vernon's future a year ago, they instructed architects to preserve the low-density scale and character of the campus, treating its streams, hills, trees and other green spaces as assets.
School officials, after meeting with residents, said they have made several concessions. Parking is being increased on campus through construction of an underground garage that will keep cars out of view. The number of dorm beds is being doubled, to 749, so more students will live on campus instead of commute.
The W Street entrance will be restricted to visitors in two years. Most of the mature trees will be saved, Baxter said.
"They think we're supposed to mimic a gated, residential community," Baxter said of the opponents. "If we control parking and beautify the landscape . . . they have a net gain."
Unpersuaded neighbors are raising money to pay legal fees in case the zoning board's decision doesn't go their way. A legal challenge would focus on the Ward 3 master plan, which prohibits uses of land that violate the low-density, suburb-in-a-city character of the Palisades/Foxhall area. GWU senior counsel Charles K. Barber maintains the plan meets all zoning regulations.
Meantime, the District's chief engineer, Gary Burch, said he will recommend two new traffic signals on Foxhall Road near the GWU campus to help ease traffic congestion in the MacArthur/Foxhall Road area.
The Lab School for the developmentally disabled (310 students), St. Patrick's Episcopal school (440 students) and the Field School (250 students) are in various stages of renovations.
The Field School, a private school for grades 7 through 12, is relocating to W and Foxhall with 250 students--up from 210 now--planned for fall 2001, raising questions of how vehicles will enter and exit the school off Foxhall.
"We have to look at the effect of everything" on traffic, Burch said.
Students are taking notice of the controversy. Baxter recently held a campus meeting at which one topic was, "How to be a good neighbor."
Baxter said that "one of the students, a freshman, raised her hand and said: Maybe we should invite the neighbors to brunch so they can get to know us, so they won't think we're something out of 'Animal House.' "
Staff writer David Montgomery contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Berkeley Terrace reaches a dead end at the edge of the Mount Vernon College campus. Neighbors fear traffic will worsen if the campus is expanded.
CAPTION: "You can't chip away at the edges of our communities and not let us in on it," says Penny Paggano. "Is it fair to ask us to undergo construction for 10 years?"
CAPTION: SEEKING TO EXPAND
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