George Washington University, already one of the biggest nongovernmental landowners in the District of Columbia, is proposing to buy every remaining piece of privately held property on its campus by the year 2000, prompting new fears about the demise of much of Foggy Bottom as a residential neighborhood.
Several of the two dozen or more remaining row house owners on the GW campus said the plan further exacerbates the long-standing town-and-gown tensions between the university and residents living among its buildings. Meanwhile, other D.C. residents who live just beyond the 17-block campus boundaries fear the same residential erosion will spread to their blocks once GW develops the remaining land within its campus.
The university already owns 83 percent of the land within its campus boundaries, located in an area between F Street and Pennsylvania Avenue and 19th and 24th streets NW.
William Diedrich, who has lived at 2323 Virginia Ave. NW for 15 years, said the GW campus plan claims that his house will no longer be his by the year 2000, a concept he calls "concerning," yet "presumptuous" on the part of the university.
"I looked at my deed and I didn't see an expiration date of the year 2000 on it," said Diedrich, an international investment adviser. "I looked in the mirror and saw that I still exist . . . so I don't know how GW gets its confidence to say they're going to own my house."
Diedrich's home has been slowly surrounded by GW-owned property over the last five years and currently the university owns eight of the 13 properties on his block, which the university uses for student housing.
Diedrich, like others residents interviewed, said he isn't opposed to having GW as a neighbor, but questions the university's real estate tactics.
"This particular university has within it a real estate arm that's perhaps the most aggressive land assembler in D.C.," Diedrich said. "The university has been engaged for the past 20 years and will be for the next 15 in tearing out a living patch of this city."
While GW doesn't possess the powers of eminent domain to forcibly evict homeowners, Diedrich claimed that what is occurring on his block is typical of the manner in which GW tries to get homeowners to move.
"The first phase is to buy a house and then put students in it," said Diedrich, whose immediate neighbors include about 25 students in the GW-owned town houses. "Then they level the buildings and put up parking lots." Such tactics, Diedrich contended, are designed to make a reluctant homeowner frustrated enough to sell.
Longtime residents like 76-year-old Catherine Genoe, who has lived at 603 22nd St. since she was six months old, said that GW's development of the neighborhood has not revitalized the area, despite the university's contentions.
"They've pushed so many people out," said Genoe, who fondly remembers her childhood playmates who once lived in homes across the street from her 100-year-old row house. Today, Genoe looks out on the bulky Smith Center, home to GW's athletic facilities.
"As long as I live, they're not going to get my house," Genoe said. "Where else would I go?"
But university officials have long maintained that their poor image among some area residents has been blown out of proportion.
"We think we are good neighbors," said Charles E. Diehl, GW's vice president and treasurer, who oversees the university's real estate development. "We see ourselves sitting on the edge of a commercial district, acting as a buffer between it and the residents. Would they rather have K Street facing them or the university?"
Diehl denied that GW has pressured any residents from their homes. "We can only acquire land from people willing to sell," he said.
Diehl acknowledged, however, that GW's proposed campus plan, which outlines development goals until the year 2000, will most likely lead to the end of residential life within the university's boundaries, except for student housing.
"Well, that's true, but that was recognized when the boundaries were set," Diehl said. "Somewhere you have to weigh the value of education. It's unreasonable to suggest that the university should stop performing its services to society because an individual feels otherwise."
In all, the university plans to construct 2.3 million square feet of additional space in the next 14 years, according to the proposed plan. The 17 percent of the property that GW does not own on its campus mostly consists of turn-of-the-century row houses and three high-rise apartment buildings, one of which GW is currently negotiating to purchase.
Beyond its campus, GW leases an additional 200,000 square feet of office, classroom and dormitory space, which angers some residents who believe GW should stay within its boundaries.
But GW officials said they need all the space they can obtain to meet the needs of the growing university, which has a current enrollment of about 17,000 students.
"Every time you have a situation with an institution and an individual you have created a David and Goliath confrontation ," Diehl said. "And unfortunately our modern society for some reason has decided that institutions need to be questioned."
The university official said that because GW's boundaries were already set in the mid-1960s in an agreement between the the city and the university, "the university has the right to acquire everything within those boundaries."
But neighborhood groups said that several proposals in the campus plan would erode what is left of the residential character within the campus, as well as severely impact on the surrounding residential area directly south and west of the university.
Several residents criticized proposals in the plan that would increase building height limitations from 80 feet to 90 feet in the central core of the campus, and allow the construction of several overhead pedestrian bridges. A provision to close six blocks of the campus to automobile traffic was also attacked by some residents, who said that such a move would reduce residential parking and increase traffic congestion on neighboring residential blocks.
"We intend to fight vigorously to maintain whatever housing is left," said Stephen Levy, a 16-year Foggy Bottom resident and vice chairman of the community's Advisory Neighborhood Commission. Levy also criticized GW for refusing to specify the exact buildings it plans to construct on proposed development sites, a criticism shared by the District government's planning department.
But GW's Diehl said the proposals are part of "a generalized plan . . . not a plan of exact allocation for placement of facilities."
Nate Gross, the District's zoning services chief, said his agency shares residents' concern over GW's plan for overhead pedestrian bridges, street closings and "a blanket building height increase." Gross said he could not comment more specifically on the plan until the department completes its recommendations later this summer.
The university said its campus master plan is designed to comply with city zoning laws, which require universities located in residential neighborhoods to develop long-range planning goals. The District's Board of Zoning Adjustment is scheduled to consider the GW plan at a September hearing.
One dispute that has simmered in the Foggy Bottom community for years concerns the university's construction of major commercial projects within its campus boundaries, which has, in part, led to GW's poor image in the neighborhood as "a real estate development company, not a university," according to one resident.
GW has developed more than 2.2 million square feet of office space in five separate projects, mostly in the last 10 years. Most recognizable of GW's commercial ventures are the four buildings along the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue between 19th Street and 22nd Street, which includes the once-controversial Red Lion Row building at 2000 Pennsylvania Ave. In that three-block stretch alone, GW has constructed 1.6 million square feet of office space.
In addition, the proposed campus plan calls for another commercial building to be squeezed into the 2200 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, currently home to several neighborhood restaurants and shops.
"They've altered the overall residential character of the area," Levy said. "They've marketed the area so that a large part of the campus is indistinguishable from the downtown business district."
Levy said that GW should use the commercial buildings for any additional classroom or faculty office space it needs before transforming other residential sections of the Foggy Bottom campus with large-scale projects.
"There are very few developers who we've had worse relationships with than GW," Levy said.
But GW's Diehl said the university needs the income generated from the commercial investment buildings to slow tuition increases and to add to its overall endowment, However, GW, in a recent newspaper advertisement, said the university has an endowment in the top 1 percent of all U.S. universities.
While numerous neighbors vocally oppose GW's expansion plans in Foggy Bottom, others proudly boast of their membership in the GW-organized support group called Friends of George and say the development has been worthwhile.
John B. Gillilland, a long-time Foggy Bottom resident who lives at 2147 F St., acknowledged that his opinion toward GW "differs from some people around here.
"Anybody that's complaining doesn't really have a complaint," said the 83-year-old Gillilland, who went to GW 60 years ago. "GW has made a great contribution and we should do all we can to help GW."
Gillilland, who said he would have no problem selling his house to GW some day, added that he is not critical of the university's removal of much of the housing in the campus area.
"No, I'm not concerned about that," he said. "People have known for years that this is GW territory."
But for Gillilland's neighbor across the street just off campus, James Molinelli, 84, a colorful neighborhood activist and president of the West End Citizens Association, GW should be feared as an expanding real estate giant.
"They have absolutely no regard for the community," said Molinelli, a 38-year resident of Foggy Bottom, who, along with his wife Lucille, was evicted from their F Street apartment building in 1963 by GW, which turned the building into a dormitory that today is known as the "zoo" by residents and students alike.
"There's no way you can stop them," he said.