Town-gown planning can be more constructive
The DC Zoning Commission will hold its final hearing tonight on the Georgetown University campus plan. Some neighborhood groups and ANC 2E continue to strongly oppose the plan, despite a number of concessions on the part of the university. Does DC's campus planning process actually help solve problems or just create strife?
The process does not encourage effective dialogue or compromise. In this case, the university has made concessions at several points directly in response to opponents' concerns, with seemingly no effect on the tone of the conversation.
The university has removed a proposed smokestack, agreed to add hundreds of residence beds, removed proposed housing and retail on the 1789 block, reduced the proposed future graduate student population by thousands, added a direct shuttle between campus and M Street, and expanded the number of police patrols and trash pickups. Yet neighborhood groups remain opposed.
It seems clear at this point that there are probably no concessions the university could make that would satisfy the Citizens Association of Georgetown (CAG), the Burleith Citizens Association (BCA), or ANC leadership, short of building enough housing for 100% of undergraduate students. That would be an extremely difficult and expensive proposition for the university, and it's not clear where this housing could go.
The opponents' position suggests that the very presence of students in the neighborhood is an insurmountable problem. This ignores the many positives that students bring to the community, and the fact that many non-student residents choose to live in Georgetown because of its liveliness and urban density. My wife and I feel safe walking home at night knowing there are other people walking about. Without the presence of so many students in the neighborhood the streets would be emptier, and would feel darker and less safe.
Students in the neighborhood are not inherently a problem. The real issue is bad behavior from some students, and what steps the university should take to mitigate those specific negative impacts. That is the sort of conversation that could happen, and that the planning process should encourage. Unfortunately, it hasn't.
Instead, positions have become entrenched and opposing sides treat each other as enemies. For example, the university established the Student Neighborhood Assistance Program (SNAP) to respond to neighborhood issues, but residents have encouraged neighbors to avoid SNAP and call 911 for any student-related problem, then say that SNAP is ineffective and cite the rising number of 911 calls as evidence of worsening behavior.
As a Georgetown resident and a Hoya alum, I think we deserve a better dialogue. But how do we get to a more meaningful conversation?
Structural changes may be necessary.
Campus plans are reviewed every 10 years. The very nature this 10-year cycle leads to brinkmanship and negativity. Some people feel that they have no leverage with the university in the intervening 9 years, and that they must obtain a decade's worth of concessions all at once. Universities think the same way. They increase their focus on town-gown issues in the years leading up to a campus plan hearing, and sometimes don't treat intervening years as seriously.
Also, like in many local political issues, the loudest voices have the most impact. People with extra time, or who feel particularly aggrieved, become the main voices of the neighborhood, while the larger number of everyday people goes unheard. I have spoken personally to many neighbors, and while many have specific concerns about student behavior or Georgetown, none of them suggest the extreme position of the opposition groups (and the DC Office of Planning) of pushing 100% of students onto campus.
This is a difficult problem. It may take some experimentation on the part of the city to determine if a better process is possible. Here are a few ides.
Option #1: Abolish the 10-year campus plan process entirely.
With the rewrite of the city's zoning plan, DC could determine which development projects or campus issues should be subject to zoning review, and use the regular public hearing process for them. While doing this would remove some of the long-term planning conversations, it would also remove some of the once-a-decade brinkmanship, which would ensure more frequent conversations between universities and neighborhoods.
Option #2: Create a college and university category in the zoning code.
The current zoning code classifies colleges and universities as residential areas and requires a "special exception" for any non-residential use. This is despite the fact that many of these institutions were established decades or centuries before the zoning laws, and have never been primarily residential. Undergraduate students represent around 10% of the city's total population, but the zoning code treats them as abnormal, and frames discussions of university expansion as having an inherently adverse impact.
The creation of a specific zoning category for colleges and universities would allow a larger discussion of the positives these institutions bring to the city, what negative impacts they may create, and the proper roles and responsibilities of universities in 21st century Washington.
A new category would be particularly helpful given the number of universities that have been opening buildings in the District lately, whether for "semester-in-DC" or more comprehensive educational programs.
Option #3: Broaden the conversation about the campus plan.
Several meetings were held in the run-up to the zoning commission hearings, but a small number of people have controlled the debate. Ideally more people should be brought into the conversation. Rather than allowing public opinion to be filtered through the parties directly in support or opposition, perhaps a citywide body such as the Office of Planning should be holding town halls to get more broad public input.
Option #4: Broaden the involved parties.
Universities are integral parts of their communities in many ways. They may offer library or gym memberships, allow for auditing of classes, or open some lectures to the general public. More such efforts by the university to directly connect students with non-student neighbors would begin to build the relationships and trust that are necessary for more positive outcomes. Rather than thinking of universities as an "other" to be opposed, neighbors might be more inclined to look for mutually beneficial solutions.
I have lived in Georgetown for the better part of the past 15 years. I hold undergraduate and graduate degrees from Georgetown University. We can do better. We deserve better. Let's make it happen.
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