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AU's East Campus plan is a good start

American University's campus plan goes before the Zoning Commission on June 9th. It's imperfect, but the plan still deserves support.

Last May, I wrote in support of the plan to build a residential complex across Nebraska Avenue from AU's main campus at Ward Circle. Over that time, the design has changed significantly. In response to overarching objections raised by some neighbors, the design has taken on less of an urban character than it originally had, which reduces its potential. Nonetheless, with architectural alterations, it will be one of the most important developments in Ward 3.

May 20th Revised Plan. Image from AU.

As part of a larger strategy for growth and consolidation of its school, American will replace a parking lot with six buildings of two to six stories, including 590 beds, a bookstore, admissions offices, classrooms, administrative spaces, as well as some retail. The benefits for AU have been argued over many times; I'll let AU speak for itself. But the benefits of the expansion to the neighborhood and the city are public business.

The new facilities will bring students out of neighborhoods. Currently, AU undergrads are spread out, with roughly 2,000 of 6,000 living off-campus. Some of those students do so by choice, but AU only has room to house 67% of its students. Many juniors and seniors have to look to the neighborhood for a place to live.

The East Campus would pull students from the neighborhood and the Tenley Campus. Better residential facilities would mean fewer students spread out in the neighborhood, fewer noise disruptions, and less of a demand for vehicular commuting.

That reduction in traffic is no small thing. The new facilities adjacent to the central campus mean fewer trips for students and faculty alike. AU is also reducing the total number of parking spaces on campus, and has promised to expand its existing transportation demand management program. Even so, AU's transportation study found that its users never contributed more than 12% of all traffic during rush hour.

The rest of the vehicles are commuters passing through the Ward Circle area. The three avenues in the area, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Massachusetts currently serve primarily as automobile routes. The new buildings offer the potential to reorient the circle for those who live and work in the area.

Rather than gnarling traffic, as opponents have insisted, the slight uptick in pedestrian activity caused by the new buildings will force drivers to pay better attention to their presence on this urban street. The potential for more stoplights and a redesigned circle opens the opportunity to reduce speeds and dangerous behavior, likewise making the area safer for residents of all ages.

Through commercial frontage and foot traffic, Nebraska Avenue would become a pleasant place for locals to enjoy. Leaving the interior of the campus for students, a commercial perimeter would become another node in the geography of Upper Northwest. It would never become as dense and vibrant as Bethesda, let alone Tenleytown, but as a tertiary urban center, it can merge into the neighborhood.

Finally, the scheme laid out in the university's plan continues to facilitate the economic activity of American and its affiliates, estimated at $415 million. Although academic institutions do not pay taxes for noncommercial properties, the Examiner reported last week that students and faculty bring money and talent to the area when they come to the region's universities. By building on its land efficiently, AU will be making an optimal contribution to the city and enlivening the streetscape through the benefits of density.

There are potential negatives, which AU needs to mitigate. However, in its effort to compromise on objections, AU has layered the new buildings in greenery and minimized certain urban features, compromising potential, while still not satisfying opponents' demands.

For example, a 40' buffer of greenery adjacent to Westover Place feathers the campus into the neighborhood, but it's not good on all four sides. Adding a similar barrier of impenetrable greenery along Nebraska Avenue will separate the campus and retail from the sidewalk. It requires creating a second, separated walkway that will reduce the very urban characteristic of unplanned interactions. It is no small leap to see this buffer as segregating the school from the city.

Nebraska Avenue Buffer.

Worsening the Nebraska Avenue elevation, the most recent plans call for a roadway to be punched through building #1 to the interior campus. A roadway in that place would disrupt the crucial urban space at the sidewalk. Instead, the plans should return to the right-in, right-out entrance on Massachusetts Avenue presented in the March 18th Final Plan. This is similar to the one at Westover Place, the Berkshire, and other nearby driveways.

At the least, the university could build on their plans for the Mary Graydon Tunnel and design the proposed road as a woonerf, prioritizing pedestrians in a roadway that runs through what is the students' front yard.

Woonerf in Victoria, BC. Photo by Dylan Passmore on Flickr.

Likewise, AU should not be advocating for a new actuated signal on Nebraska Avenue. Instead, it should build timed signals that guarantee AU students the opportunity to cross as frequently and in rhythm with the city's traffic.

A new stoplight, combined with the recommended changes to Ward Circle, would make the area safer than any phystical barrier by limiting the incentive to jaywalk. If a physical deterrent is necessary, planters between the street and the sidewalk should be sufficient, as at Bethesda Row.

Finally, the project should serve as a catalyst for alternative transportation in the area. Bike lanes on New Mexico Avenue would mean better safety and better quality of life for students and neighbors alike. On campus, the administration already promotes a progressive Transport Demand Management plan, with dedicated ZipCar spaces, Capitol Bikeshare, carpooling assistance, shuttles, and SmartBenefits. But without adequate facilities, the full benefits of cycling and bus transit will not be realized.

Smart Growth refers to planning that is appropriate not only at the local level, but across multiple scales: architectural, local, metropolitan, and regional. AU's expansion plan, which would consolidate students, tame traffic, and create a new node of community, works at the larger three scales. Where it fails is in the way that it addresses the street and human scale, compromising enormous potential for solutions that will please no one and will require remediation in the future.

The Zoning commission should endorse AU's 2011 Campus Plan with alterations at the architectural scale.

Neil Flanagan grew up in Ward 3 before graduating from the Yale School of Architecture. He is pursuing an architecture license. He really likes walking around and looking at stuff.  


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The mid-block signal should be actuated, not timed. That stretch of Nebraska avenue already has a signalized crossing at either end with a guaranteed pedestrian crossing while traffic is turning in other directions. The distance between the proposed signal and the two at New Mexico and Ward circle is about 200 feet. There hardly needs to be another automatic break in traffic for when pedestrians are not present

by ah on Jun 7, 2011 11:19 am • linkreport

Thanks for this write-up. I am a resident if this neighborhood and welcome the change. I would like to see more street level retail that serve students and the neighborhood or some facility that can serve as a meeting place for EVERYONE. I am skeptical whether more pedestrian traffic and on-campus housing will improve traffic (maybe fewer AU shuttle busses?).

by snowpeas on Jun 7, 2011 11:28 am • linkreport

"It requires creating a second, separated walkway that will reduce the very urban characteristic of unplanned interactions. It is no small leap to see this buffer as segregating the school from the city. "

I don't think this is entirely true. The second walkway will be the main walkway and will create a pleasant separation from the street. The stretch of sidewalk along Nebraska Avenue is not highly used because it doesn't connect much of anything and still won't. People on the main campus side may use the sidewalk on the north side of Nebraska to walk along campus. But on the south side, you'd be walking from the church to Ward circle, or beyond to NBC or the Naval/DHS complex--i.e., not much pedestrian traffic. The other use there is for the bus stops, but they will be located where the pedestrian crossings are. And there's no parking along Nebraska Ave. there.

What the setback gets people is nice tree space and greenery and a buffer from the road. That is better than having the green space right in front of the buildings (and the buildings can't be much closer to Nebraska Ave. anyway). It will also allow for trees of a much higher quality and size than the 6 feet between the sidewalk and the road.

by ah on Jun 7, 2011 11:46 am • linkreport

It is no small leap to see this buffer as segregating the school from the city.

That, of course, is the point. The pitchfork brigade wants the school segregated from the surrounding neighborhoods to the greatest extent possible.

They do not want this area to become a "tertiary urban center" and will do everything they can to prevent it.

by Dizzy on Jun 7, 2011 11:48 am • linkreport

fewer noise disruptions

Noise disruptions are not uniquely a results of having students nearby. I really despise this truthiness. Noise disruptions can be caused by all kinds of residents. Mostly when a lot of residents live closely together. You know, like in a city.

by Jasper on Jun 7, 2011 1:43 pm • linkreport

@Jasper - The noise disruptions (i.e., drunken students) would be moved from neighborhood streets and off-campus housing to on-campus locations.

by ah on Jun 7, 2011 2:05 pm • linkreport

Agree with Dizzy - the neighborhood in the area hates AU. They don't want this no matter unobtrusive it is. They don't really want a university there but they can't find a good way to get rid of the school. Thus, AU walks a tightrope while the neighborhood is constantly shaking the line.

by J on Jun 7, 2011 2:54 pm • linkreport

I am skeptical whether more pedestrian traffic and on-campus housing will improve traffic

Is there any source for your skepticism?

by JustMe on Jun 7, 2011 4:06 pm • linkreport

I am skeptical whether more pedestrian traffic and on-campus housing will improve traffic (maybe fewer AU shuttle busses?)

Because clearly, it is the AU shuttle buses that are the source of traffic congestion. Not the thousands of commuter and neighborhood resident SOVs, no siree, it's the university buses. If we could just reduce/banish them, conditions will surely improve!


by Dizzy on Jun 7, 2011 4:17 pm • linkreport

@JustMe - There are a lot of bogus arguments, but one that is legitimate is that the east campus will increase congestion along Nebraska Avenue because of more pedestrian traffic. It already is a bit of a mess because there are a lot of cars and a fair number of students trying to filter through/cross an area without adequate capacity to handle all of them safely. Adding more students to the number who cross Nebraska Avenue will not help that situation.

As for increased/decrease cars, that is a separate issue relating to employment at AU. Students aren't likely to be creating much of the traffic as it is, and that lot stands mostly empty on most days.

by ah on Jun 7, 2011 5:05 pm • linkreport

I'm particularly disappointed to see that Mary Cheh is against the plan. Those opposed to the presence of the university have also argued against bike lanes leading to campus, as well as the installation of the Bikeshare station at AU for "non taxpaying" students.

The complaints about the plan have also included a senior resident worried about his insurance rates going up after he hits students that are walking in crosswalks.

It's beyond disappointing to see Cheh associated with that nonsense.

by Marc on Jun 7, 2011 5:20 pm • linkreport

@ ah:The noise disruptions (i.e., drunken students)

You continue the useless generalization that all noise disruptions come from drunken students. That is simply not true.

by Jasper on Jun 7, 2011 8:10 pm • linkreport

Cheh has been catching hell from her constituents for backing Vince Gray, and so she has been pandering to the NIMBY crowd. That's the crowd that is demanding that Georgetown students must live ON campus, but AU students must continue to be forced to live OFF campus because of housing shortages. And Cheh is pandering to both NIMBY groups.

Oh, well. At least she isn't under investigation like half her colleagues. Political opportunism and pandering are not crimes. Only if AU and GW students register to vote will she - and her Council colleagues - pay any attention to University or student concerns.

by Skeptic on Jun 7, 2011 8:35 pm • linkreport

Ah - I don't mind the setback by itself. What I find objectionable is the impermeable barrier between the school and the sidewalk. If that setback were a lawn with some canopy trees, I'd support it.

by Neil Flanagan on Jun 7, 2011 8:41 pm • linkreport

The school seems to be trying to accommodate the growth over the years. After all, it is dealing with the land allocated to it since 1893.I think the new retail would be a nice addition to the bit of retail on New Mexico.

by Leaf on Jun 8, 2011 12:55 am • linkreport

Design issues aside, Mary Cheh's Ward 3 constituents ought to be well-aware that she is to testify before the zoning commission against this plan. Now it is all well and good to be in favor of IMPROVING a plan design, but Mary is making the political miscalculation of siding with a group of people who are not of that ilk. Compromise is not in their vernacular - witness the absurd statements they continue to make that AU has taken none of their concerns to mind and has not negotiated one bit. Really? Believe me, if AU was not listening and was not offering their plan in the spirit of compromise, the plan would include retail fast against both Nebraska New Mexico. For Mary's sake, I sure hope she is right that when her next election comes around, the NIMBYs, who will lose this fight, remember her as the politician who stood beside them saying "no," or was the reasonable advisor who spent time poring over the details to come up with an improved plan that would benefit both sides. From my perspective, she has lost my vote by not taking the latter approach. The more sensible NIMBYs also will conclude that she sold them a bill of goods with her scorched earth approach.

by SAS on Jun 8, 2011 8:50 am • linkreport

Instead of having a traffic light, what about a pedestrian overpass that would allow pedestrians to cross traffic at any point of time without interfering with the traffic? This will also allow the the neighbors who live past AU to cross the street when needed.

by Stuart on Jun 8, 2011 9:47 am • linkreport

@Stuart - One resident in fact proposed such an idea. There are two problems with it (at least): (1) It would need to be quite high to allow trucks to pass; (2) It likely would be visually unappealing because it would require a tight cluster of stairs going up and down on either side. Not to mention because of all the stairs it likely would not be used.

by ah on Jun 8, 2011 10:19 am • linkreport

Neil Flanagan: What I find objectionable is the impermeable barrier between the school and the sidewalk.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding what you're concern is, but the design appears to call for a narrow (6 ft) sidewalk along the street, a green "buffer" of 20+ feet, and then a "promenade" of 20+ feet in front of the buildings themselves. The green buffer provides substantial room for sizable trees and other plantings.

Now if you meant "impermeable" as in "not allowing people to pass" - that is true (other than selected points) but my question is where is the foot traffic along the sidewalk next to the street that will be deterred? All it does is move the foot traffic in from the street by 30-40 feet to where the "action" is.

by ah on Jun 8, 2011 10:22 am • linkreport

The points about the aesthetics of the Pedestrian Overpass and how high it must be are very valid points. But you can make a pedestrian overpass very beautiful looking (glass walls,perhaps a roof to cover the students made of solar pannels, or of any style you wish such as modern, Urban, or the bare essentials). The other point of the height is that you can still make an overpass as large as you want if you have the stairs go parallel with the sidewalk.

by Stuart on Jun 8, 2011 10:40 am • linkreport

Come on people, nobody is going to use a pedestrian bridge to cross a 50 foot roadway. That's ridiculous.

by MLD on Jun 8, 2011 11:04 am • linkreport

The author suggested that adding more on-campus housing would imptove traffic. I am skeptical if this because the traffic congestion along Nebraska is caused not by lack of pedestrian use or off-campus students, it's caused by MD and VA workers driving through, not to, the neighborhood.

by snowpeas on Jun 8, 2011 11:29 am • linkreport

ome on people, nobody is going to use a pedestrian bridge to cross a 50 foot roadway. That's ridiculous.

Sure, but the result will be that traffic can flow unimpeded, and any pedestrians who die will be killed through their own negligence. It's the same reason you put up little novelty stop-signs on MUPs, and add a "Walk Your Bike" sign for good measure.

The result is to create a built environment that gets folks killed, then blame the dead for their lawlessness. They may as well build a tight-rope or balance beam rather than a pedestrian bridge; it'd be cheaper.

by oboe on Jun 8, 2011 12:10 pm • linkreport

Now that we know the road is 50 ft long and perhaps, a little inconvenient to use an overpass, there is still an underpass that will permit the traffic of pedestrians at all times. As for the fast paced traffic of D.C. the last time I checked was around 25-30mph. By permitting all traffic to go at the same time allows people to get where they need to be and in a timely manner, as for slowing down the traffic on Nebraska Avenue, there is a traffic light and still a round about at the end of that.

by Stuart on Jun 8, 2011 12:23 pm • linkreport


A pedestrian bridge or a tunnel is ridiculous and bad transportation policy for a city. The District's goal should be to create walkable neighborhoods, not to cede all public space over to the automobile and ensure commuters from Maryland and Virginia can save twenty seconds on their commute. Segregating users like this and making Nebraska Avenue into a de facto limited-access roadway will do nothing to contribute to the quality of life in this part of Ward 3.

by Ben on Jun 8, 2011 1:19 pm • linkreport

Am I reading the AAA blog today? Holy Toledo, most of the posters seem to be seeking a way to completely segregate the campus in a way so that through traffic can move unimpeded from the suburbs to downtown. I may be wrong, but that seems not to be the point of Neil's post, although it is the avowed goal of the NIMBYs in the neighborhood. Sheesh.

by SAS on Jun 8, 2011 5:27 pm • linkreport

It’s a shame AU had to downsize their ambitions, but their current plan still works, accomplishes many objectives (including more green space), and gets rid of a massive, disgusting (and mostly unused) surface parking lot.

Concerning the “green buffer,” it may provide inclusion that some students will prefer, but to find a balance with the community, they need to make sure people aren’t funneled through one or two entries, which will likely require more paths or getting rid of the vegetation (not the trees) and seatwall and replacing it with grass that people could actually use to sit/study/play.

I’m not sure how more or less shuttle buses will affect residences. Last time I was there, shuttle buses do not drive through residential neighborhoods and only on the main thoroughfares (Wisconsin and Nebraska), along with other city buses.

A pedestrian bridge sounds like an awful, ugly idea that would never be used out of sheer inconvenience while providing false confidence to drivers who will not pay attention to those at the crosswalk. The problem with the traffic around the circle has always been due to the bad timing of traffic lights and the ineptitude of many drivers who do not understand how Ward Circle works. Those turning onto Nebraska get the green just as a gaggle of students and residents cross the street, allowing one or two cars every light cycle. If they gave the pedestrians a sizeable head start, more cars can turn per light cycle allowing traffic to continue smoothly.

by cmc on Jun 9, 2011 4:40 pm • linkreport

The hearing is beginning now. You can watch it via webcast.

by Neil Flanagan on Jun 9, 2011 6:58 pm • linkreport

The point that I am trying to make is simply greater student access to the university, dormitories, and retail areas, which will highly enrich student life. We can shorten their waiting times by either having an overpass (it only needs to be 19ft high and could have solar panels) or a pedestrian underpass, which is more convenient for the pedestrians. The fact that the cars have one less traffic light is simply just a byproduct, and was never the intent of the main argument.

This will be a heavily populated area if everything goes according to plan. There will be 500 beds in the new dorm, which means there should be at least 1000 trips a day five days of the week, assuming students have classes every five days of the week. That is not even including the community around American University which can also use these over or under passes to gain access to the retail areas. The other benefit to building a structure is that they would likely reduce car accidents and other harmful car-related incidents including relating to pedestrians.

My final point is that American University wants to have a completely neutral carbon footprint in the near future. Installing a new traffic light, however, will cause at least 1-3 tons of emission to be dumped right in front of American University from the cars waiting for the additional traffic light. Research from Hamilton County Environmental Services ( ) states that for about every 1 minute there is about 1 ounce of pollution from cars. Other sources I was able to find found the pollution amounting to being about the same amount. We can imagine, from such estimates, that for at least 4 cars stopping on each side of the street waiting for pedestrians for about 30 seconds, which means about 1 pound for every 16 cars—or if traffic stops 35 times with 4 cars on each side, 8.75 pounds of car pollution can result per day. Per year, this amounts to about 2,275 pounds of pollution. This does not include weekends or holidays. This also does not include the pollution from the accelerating of the cars from a standstill or the emissions of operating the traffic lights.

So, again, I’m only considering making access easier for the students because of how densely populated the area is. With the carbon-neutral imperatives outlined in the AU campus plan, this would be a good way of achieving that and gives insight to the amount of pollution that one extra traffic light would cause. I personally believe that it would be harder to generate more “green energy” to neutralize that resulting ton of wasteful emissions. Solar panels being placed as a roof for an over or under pass will also be useful in neutralizing American University’s carbon footprint, but the underpass would be most convenient and easiest to pass aesthetic acceptance from the hearings and the community. Adding an over or under pass benefits all parties involved—the commuters, the community, the students and faculty, and decreases the time and congestion that would result from a pedestrian traffic light, a point that the hearing community would like to hear. For the United States to have dialogues with China and India in regards to their production of pollution, it will have to make more initiatives in reducing its own pollution. However, many Universities have already aimed at reducing their carbon footprint , and American University has taken some of the greatest initial first steps including the building of the SIS building, and the building of an overpass or preferable underpass would be another great addition to reducing at least 1 annual ton of emissions that are directly related to the University and its relationship to the environment and community.

by Stuart on Jun 9, 2011 11:17 pm • linkreport

In addition to my last comment, I listed the pollution estimates for stopping traffic up to 35 times a day, which would equal more than a ton of pollution per year. Realistically, American University could have up to 100 stops of traffic in a day which would put our pollution emissions up to 4,000-6,000 pounds a year. I hope you can use these points to consider the underpass as a rough estimate. Some substantial research, in regards to the amount of traffic, would need to be done before presenting realistic goals of placing an underpass.

by Stuart on Jun 9, 2011 11:54 pm • linkreport

An even better way of ensuring a better carbon footprint is encouraging more beds on campus, thus obviating the need for students to seek housing in the greater residential area. However, the same residents who are asking for a pedestrian bridge/tunnel (thus potentially resulting in a barren streetscape) also demanded AU reduce the number of beds from around 1000 to the 400 OP is suggesting.

Still better would be a comprehensive transportation demand management plan that provides staff, students and faculty incentives for alternatives to single occupancy vehicles as a means to campus. Interestingly, during the first hearing last night, there was a discussion about existing traffic patterns. I agree with the assessment provided that commuter through traffic and k-12 cycles far outweigh any impact on local roads than the University. I believe that is true city and nationwide, not just in AU Park.

by Andrew on Jun 10, 2011 7:09 am • linkreport


Exactly. The more students that can live walking distance to campus and retail means less students driving to class.

I never understood why the NIMBYs in the neighborhood were so against the Unviersity fostering a community and were in favor of the status quo, a highway and lots of surface parking.

by cmc on Jun 10, 2011 2:50 pm • linkreport

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