When the Pi Kappa Phis of George Washington University meet, it's usually in a drab student-union conference room. Much of their communications occur through e-mail, their parties at whatever downtown bar they can afford to book. And when they made their big pitch last week to rush potential pledges into the hallowed bonds of brotherhood, it was around the $4-an-hour pool tables of the campus game room.
Such is the rootless life of an urban frat boy in a college town where soaring real estate prices have long thwarted campus Greeks from finding an Animal House of their own. In all of the District, only three fraternity chapters -- and no sororities -- have official houses.
But that's about to change at George Washington. Next fall, the university will open eight townhouses, now under construction on 23rd Street NW, to give five sororities and three fraternities -- including Pi Kappa Phi -- a place, at last, to hang their ball caps.
"This is a great opportunity. It gives us a central location to meet and really grow as a group," raved Pi Kappa Phi President Brian Taylor, a junior from Greenburg, Pa. "Our doors will be open to everybody all the time. Everybody will know they can stop off here."
Designed to add 200 beds to GWU's scarce supply of on-campus housing, the Townhouse Row project is also part of an unusual effort by school officials to spice up student life -- by encouraging more undergraduates to go Greek.
The move flies in the face of national trends that have seen Greek membership decline and many colleges clamp down on fraternities and sororities over concerns about alcohol abuse, hazing and other misconduct. But where some schools see a liability, GWU President Stephen J. Trachtenberg sees a thriving Greek system as a major plus. He would like the school's fraternities and sororities to comprise as much as 25 percent of the student body, up from the current 13 percent.
"I've been trying to make people feel they are part of the campus, but the fact we're located in the heart of a city means the creation of campus life has been slow," Trachtenberg said. "People at large universities tend to relate to the smallest group they can get their arms around."
He noted, too, that at many colleges, "former fraternity and sorority members tend to become very good alumni," more likely than other graduates to donate money to their alma maters.
But the plan has aggravated long-standing tensions with campus neighbors, who fear that a Frat Row in Foggy Bottom will worsen the noise and trash problems linked to undergrad carousing. Meanwhile, some on campus doubt that houses will do much to boost Greek membership at a school as earnest as GWU, where popular activities include interning on the Hill and sitting in the studio audience for CNN's "Crossfire."
"People come to GW for where it is in D.C. -- four blocks from the White House," said Kevin Levinsky, a junior from Stone Mountain, Ga. "Being at a school as intellectual as GW, it's hard to be in a Greek system. Students are more worried about keeping their [grade-point average] up."
Despite the District's lively and growing population of undergraduates, Greeks have never dominated the scene here as they have in towns such as Charlottesville or College Park. American and Howard universities have several Greek chapters, though none has housing, and of the three chapters at Catholic University, only a small coterie of Alpha Delta Gamma men share an unofficial place off-campus. Georgetown University hasn't recognized social fraternities or sororities since the 1960s.
GWU, in fact, may have the most visible Greek system in the District, with 11 fraternities and eight sororities. Even so, their numbers have shrunk over the past decade, at a time when the university has continued to grow.
In part, students say, it's because the city's thriving nightlife beats the fraternities at their own game. "You don't need the Greek system to go to parties and go to clubs," said Taylor, 20. "That's all here for you."
Fraternity parties are "a dying breed" at GWU, thanks to tightened university restrictions and crackdowns by city police, said Kate Stepan, editor of the Hatchet student newspaper. And few members wear their Greek letters around campus, she said. "Everyone here is striving for that black-pants, young-professional look instead."
Most GWU students, some say, just simply aren't the kind of people who went to college planning to join a fraternity or sorority -- a major hurdle for those chapters trying to increase their numbers. "It's not a popular thing," mused Levinsky, president of Theta Delta Chi, whose members recently logged volunteer hours feeding the homeless at Miriam's Kitchen. "You really have to show them we're about more than just partying all the time."
Others argue that the lack of housing is the real reason Greek life has lagged. "Without a house, it's hard to be visible," said Zara Dang, a junior from Palo Alto, Calif., and president of Alpha Phi sorority, which will move into Townhouse Row next fall. "Only people who are in it know what it's about."
Sigma Phi Epsilon, another chapter preparing to move into the townhouses, spent years looking for a house to buy but could never find an affordable one near campus, said President Josh Greenbaum, a junior from North Brunswick, N.J. Instead, the brothers were forced to spread out across campus, living in twos or fours.
Though GWU's move to boost Greek membership may be unusual, its outreach to Greek chapters is not. Emory University in Atlanta and Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., underwrote major renovations of their aging fraternity houses during the 1990s -- in exchange for the fraternities' agreeing to abide by new rules and allowing adult house managers to move in. The University of Virginia recently installed high-speed computer network connections to several fraternity and sorority houses.
"They're trying to get a handle on the facilities part [of Greek life] to get the houses more involved" in campus life, said Kevin Kruger, associate executive director of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.
Unlike the three existing fraternity houses at GWU, the townhouses will be part of the campus residence hall system, bound to all the policies governing dormitories and subject to regular patrols by university police.
Though all eight sororities at GWU applied for a slot, some fraternities hesitated, wary of such restrictions. The university approached two fraternities that own prime real estate within campus boundaries, offering to swap the houses for a long-term lease in Townhouse Row, but both declined, fraternity members said.
"I'm excited they're supporting us, I'm just not giving up my house to be regulated by the university," said Kris Hart, a sophomore from Oreland, Pa., and president of Phi Sigma Kappa, which has owned a turreted red-brick house at 21st and F streets NW for 20 years. "We can have our own identity, and if we want to paint our stairwell red and silver" -- the fraternity colors -- "we can."
Neighbors, long at odds with the fast-growing university, harbor mixed feelings about the project. Longtime Foggy Bottom activist Ellie Becker noted contentedly that the townhouses fulfill "our request that they house more students on campus."
But Ron Cocome, president of the Foggy Bottom Association, complained that the townhouses -- on a major approach into the West End, two blocks up from the State Department -- are more imposing than expected. And he said many residents are frustrated that the university originally touted the project as housing for "affinity" groups -- a concept left vague enough to suggest the French club, perhaps, or the campus vegetarians, without specifying that those groups would likely be Greek chapters.
"It may work out well," Cocome said. "But a huge number of students in one place has the potential of being disruptive."
Trachtenberg insisted that the fraternities and sororities will have little impact on the neighborhood, surrounded as they are by university buildings. And it's not as though they're new to Foggy Bottom.
"These kids all live someplace now," he said.