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Moving AU law school could revitalize Tenleytown

American University is developing their 2011 campus plan, which will guide growth for the next decade. In effect, the plan is also an understanding between the neighborhood and the university about what the part of the city they share should look like in 2020... and 2060.

Tenley campus from Wisconsin Ave.

In addition to some new buildings on campus AU proposes two major changes: First, the university would erect several buildings on some underused parking lots near campus, which I'll discuss in a later article. The second proposal would relocate the growing Washington College of Law to the Tenley Campus, a facility between Yuma and Warren streets on Wisconsin Avenue at Tenley Circle.

In the abstract, the relocation should benefit the neighborhood and bring more life to the southern part of Tenleytown. The current location of the school is in an autocentric and distant office park on Massachusetts Avenue, a poor location for a professional campus. However, whether the new building benefits or burdens the community will depend on the quality of its execution and the policies with which the administration operates the school.

Currently, around 800 students live on the Tenley Campus, most of them taking part in the Washington Semester program. They occupy a buildings built for the former Immaculata School, which American purchased in 1987. A handful of those structures are designated landmarks, which AU will preserve; others are forgettable midcentury structures, which AU will demolish to handle the law school's 2,500 students and faculty.

The site has tremendous potential to make Upper Northwest more walkable and more sustainable. Moving the law school closer to the Tenleytown-AU metro station will reduce the net amount of traffic along Nebraska and Massachusetts Avenues. To get to the current law school building, students and faculty can either drive to the generous parking garage, or take the AU shuttle from Tenleytown.

That access to the Tenleytown metro is especially important to these law students, because most live outside the neighborhood and merely commute in for the school day. Likewise, the Immaculata campus sits right on several bus lines—and a potential streetcar line—that will receive efficiency improvements through TIGER Grants.

As a side benefit, the new school would put more foot traffic along the southern block of Tenleytown's retail area. The current shuttle buses isolates students from neighbors; the three-block walk down Wisconsin would put them face-to face on the main strip. The steady stream of students and faculty would patronize stores and restaurants and justify streetscape improvements that will make Tenleytown nicer for everyone.

On Nebraska Avenue, a well-designed campus would significantly improve the urban architecture of one of DC's monumental boulevards. Against the other streets, a good architect would be able to make the building disappear into the trees that line the perimeter of the campus. Because the university has no plans or even a design architect yet, the possibilities for integrating the school into the neighborhood are vast. The campus plan is the right opportunity to ask for them.

For all of the potential benefits, the College of Law could still hurt the neighborhood. American could ask for an introverted suburban campus and receive an eyesore and a traffic nightmare. The negotiation between the ANC and the university administration will allow for specific terms of approval to be stated. Design guidelines, operations requirements, and community benefits can be spelled out ahead of time to ensure that both sides gain from the construction and trust is not broken.

American University's plan is good at first glance. Whether it is good for the next fifty years will depend on how well residents and the university work together to make a lasting improvement to the city.

Cross posted on цarьchitect.

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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You can also get to the law school via the N4/N6 or the N8.

The AU link seems pretty sparse of information (without going through meeting notes). Any word on the plan for the old law school?

by Steven Yates on May 26, 2010 2:15 pm • linkreport

Expect the Tenley NIMBYs to be totally opposed to this and to cite to the thousands of people that would be cause tons of traffic in that area.

by Fritz on May 26, 2010 2:35 pm • linkreport

I'm sorry, you are not allowed to build anything in Tenleytown because it will destroy the (obsolete, 1950s, we-got-ours-and-the-rest-of-you-can-just-move-to-Clarksburg) character of the neighborhood. I say take away their (heavily subsidized by the rest of us) Metro stop.

by Joe on May 26, 2010 2:44 pm • linkreport

Yeah, I have to agree that the Tenley Gestapo always takes 1st place in the NIMBY contest. They want all of the conveniences of living in a modern city without the hassle of traffic, construction, and people. The law school will move there the same day the District gets two U.S. Senators.

by aaa on May 26, 2010 3:02 pm • linkreport

As a WCL Alum I'll throw out a few comments.

1. Not to nitpick, but to say the parking garage is "generous" is a bit of an overstatement. As I recal, 1l's were not allowed to park there at all, and there was a seniority/lottery system for upperclassmen. Further, the garage was pretty expensive, especially for a student, and if you parked in the neighborhood, you risked getting a ticket from the University, who basically papered every out of state car within a half mile, if you weren't a student you threw it out, if you were, you'd have to pony up the $80 bucks or they wouldn't let you graduate.

2. This is just hearsay, but I remember one of my professors saying that the original plan for WCL back in the 90's was to place the school in Tenleytown, but after a prolonged fight with the neighbors, they backed off. I guess that shows how powerfull the entrenced interests in that area are if a building full of lawyers can't get it's way...

by Wheatoner on May 26, 2010 3:10 pm • linkreport

Expect the same empty and hollow opposition to anything AU does as GW and Georgetown constantly get.

Don't you know that students are always drunk and loud? They're a deterioration of the neighborhood, despite all evidence of the contrary.

Most importantly, and disgustingly, all those students destroy the beautiful vistas that DC has. The founding fathers never imagined Washington being a student town.

Except for George Washington himself who founded (the political roots for the foundation of) the Columbian College. But look at what Jefferson did. He kept students more than a hundred miles away from DC in Charlottesville. Clearly, the founding fathers did not want students in this city.

Finally, Pierre L'Enfant envisioned a great city with beautiful vistas like Paris. And we all know that Paris has no students at all whatsoever.

[Actually, this is kinda fun. Coming up with bogus but well sounding arguments. Perhaps that's the game these folks are in. They're just in it for the fun.]

by Jasper on May 26, 2010 3:18 pm • linkreport

Good. Rebuild the APEX.

by F. Sheehan on May 26, 2010 3:20 pm • linkreport

"The current location of the school is in an autocentric and distant office park on Massachusetts Avenue" - a GGW instant classic!!! Tenleytown Town may indeed be a better location for a law school, but distant office park - you've got to be kidding me. The current location is in the city and ~1/2 mile from the main AU campus.

by Dave from the burbs on May 26, 2010 3:27 pm • linkreport

Yeah, good luck getting anything built in Tenleytown. Also, I wouldn't call the current location for the AU law school "an autocentric and distant office park"... it's about a half mile from the main campus in Spring Valley.

by F. Sheehan on May 26, 2010 3:31 pm • linkreport

It's not even an office park! It's a single office building.

by JMG on May 26, 2010 3:50 pm • linkreport

Dave & Sheehan: Indeed, it is within the city. That is why the suburban retail center there is so obnoxious. I

The large surface parking lots, the service road, the few crosswalks, and the orientation of most of the buildings are similar to those built in 1950s suburbs. It's not as miserably hostile to residents as some huge corner out in Centreville, but the strip there is still distinctly unpleasant for pedestrians and oriented towards automobile visitors.

Also, although it about a half-mile from the main campus, that's largely irrelevant. AU has told me that the WCL students (and maybe Wheatoner can correct me) do not interact much with the main college campus - but they do use the Metro and the buses frequently. Tenleytown's core is over a mile from the school.

Moving the school would take it from a moderately suburban location to a fully urban one near multiple forms of transportation.

by Neil Flanagan on May 26, 2010 4:00 pm • linkreport

What I'm saying is that it's distant on a pedestrian scale, and that is how we should measure space within the ten miles square.

by Neil Flanagan on May 26, 2010 4:02 pm • linkreport

Fritz-- you right, the Tenley NIMBYS are totally opposed to this, just as the Georgetown NIMBYs are totally opposed to GU's 2020 campus plan. Both groups are seeking (or have retained) legal counsel and donations to fund their opposition: .

This is what Tenley residents do-- oppose things, just like they opposed the Akridge development at 5220 Wisc Ave (, the Maxim Condo proposal, the new Giant further south on Wisconsin (, and a Wisconsin Avenue streetcar route. These people have been here for decades and they confuse Wisconsin Avenue for West Virginia, not the major corridor leading into the District that it is.

by Ben on May 26, 2010 4:11 pm • linkreport

@ Neil,

You are indeed correct regarding WCL's interaction with the University as a whole. The campus is completely self contained with a few exceptions. For me at least, the only times I ventured to Main Campus were book buying trips before each semester and to graduate at Bender Arena. Some students used the campus gym as well, but other than that I can't think of many reasons for the hike up Mass Ave.

by Wheatoner on May 26, 2010 4:14 pm • linkreport

I see what you're saying. Still, that shopping area in Spring Valley doesn't bother me much... it's sorta like Sam's Park & Shop in Cleveland Park. It's not as bad as your average strip mall. I'm all for moving the school too, but getting anything built in Tenleytown will be a real challenge.

by F. Sheehan on May 26, 2010 4:23 pm • linkreport

@wheatoner-it's a building of law professors. Perhaps they're teaching not practicing for a reason.

by Ah on May 26, 2010 4:25 pm • linkreport

You're post is spot-on. Since AU bought the Tenley campus in the late 80's, they have done little to the site (except turning some of the buildings into dorms and offices). Bringing the law school to this site will add tremendously to the area, especially to the area south of Tenley Circle (which tends to have a characteristic smell if I'm not mistaken).

As I recall, the law school was supposed to be at the now-Katzen Center site, but suprise-surprise... the NIMBY's opposed it.

In my opinion, the entire neighborhood needs a vision/plan for redevelopment. There are far too many sites in the neighborhood that don't belong anywhere near a city, much less within walking distance of a Metro station.

by John on May 26, 2010 8:43 pm • linkreport

Good luck coming up with a development plan for Tenleytown. The NIMBYs believe Tenleytown has been built out as much as possible, any new residential development will cause tons of traffic and can't be handled by Metro, and that development will ruin the character of the neighborhood.

The small "strip mall" next to AU Law has Wagshall's Deli. Anyone who speaks ill of that shopping area is also speaking ill of Wagshall's, which basically means you hate America.

by Fritz on May 26, 2010 9:05 pm • linkreport

You can Google UWACS or the Upper Wisconsin Avenue Corridor Study, which was torpedoed by the regular cast of characters in a previous administration.

Yes, a small area plan would be fantastic, but at the same time, this is an opportunity to really rethink Tenleytown (from Van Ness to Brandywine or Chesapeake) in terms of amenities, retail, transportation and housing. Working with AU could yield far superior results than continued piecemeal planning and fighting opposition to any change in the community.

by Andrew on May 26, 2010 9:23 pm • linkreport

FWIW, it's fair to say that the Georgetown Law Center has minimal if not negligible impact on the area of Massachusetts Ave. where it is located, other than some white people walking on the street during the day.

by Richard Layman on May 26, 2010 10:26 pm • linkreport

speaking ill of Wagshall's, which basically means you hate America.

Or hate prices higher even than Whole Foods.

by ah on May 27, 2010 12:10 am • linkreport

As an employee at the Law School who takes public transportation to work, I am excited about the prospect of the Law School moving to Tenleytown. My commute would be easier, and I would be closer to stuff.

Unfortunately, if today's NW Current is any indication, the neighborhood is going to fight it tooth and nail. Remember this is upper NW. These a**holes have at the same time fought against cars, buses, bicycles and pedestrians. I have, as a middle ged employee, mind you, received dirty looks from the Law School's current neighbors, because I have had the gaul to walk down Warren Street.

I hope that the local ANC's history of fighting everything will come back to haunt them in the sense that crying wolf one too many times will hopefully allow the Zoning Board to ignore them. Sorry neighbors, but when you move into a neighborhood called AU Park in the core of the 4th or 5th largest metropolitan area in the US, you are not entitled to the tranquility reserved for the country. If you want quiet, move to the country!!!

by Anonymous on Jun 17, 2010 8:09 pm • linkreport

I think those that haven't experienced being a student at WCL really have no concept of what a burden it poses.

First, as someone pointed out, law students never interact with main campus besides to buy books and maybe use the gym. Plus, the vast majority of students don't live near the campus or the law school, because it's such a remote area. So the fact that it is a half mile from the campus essentially provides no benefit to law schoolers.

Second, the person who said the law school is accessible via the N4/N6 and N8 probably isn't a regular user of those modes of transportation. I remember my first year of law school, there were multiple days where 12-20/100 people in my 9 AM class would show up over 15 minutes late, because the N4 simply hadn't come. Or more often SEVERAL scheduled N4s didn't come. There was a time I had to run from Mass/Wisc to school, because it didn't show and we were not allowed to miss our once a week writing/research class.

It's more than a matter of convenience for the law students. It also impacts their ability to extern or work their second and third year. Trying to arrange a schedule where you work downtown and take classes at WCL in the same day is immensely difficult.

Relatedly, has anyone taken the N6 from the law school back to Mass/Wisc or Dupont? It is the worst route ever -- from Main Campus it does a little tour through the most remote areas in Glover Park and then goes back to Main Campus and only then down Mass. So if you're at school after 9 (which a lot of our students are) or going on the weekend, get ready for at least a half hour bus ride just to get a mile or two down Mass Ave.

In the past few years, our law school has had some very amazing speakers and events, including Justice Scalia, Ralph Nader, and Cass Sunstein. Even though we don't have any large auditorium, these events aren't typically packed despite being open to the public. Why? Because it is so inconvenient to get out to the law school.

As far as WCL's parking garage, it is off limits to first-year students, you can't actually park on the streets in the neighborhood or you will get an 80 dollar ticket, and it is very, very expensive for second and third year students. (Over 1K for the academic year.)

Of course, Wagshal's is awesome if WAY over priced, but consider the fact that if you want to lunch near the law school, it would be one of the very few options for a quick lunch... for three years.

It isn't just about the law school -- it's about the Tenleytown community, too. But it should be clear that having the the law school in Spring Valley is a major inconvenience. And, personally, I agree with many of the commentators that moving the law school near the Metro would provide such a great benefit not only for the law school, but also the Tenleytown community. People living in Tenleytown trying to stop this are not only unreasonable, but also delusional about the future of DC. They can't keep the city out forever...

by Anonymous on Jun 19, 2010 10:15 pm • linkreport

@6/19 Anonymous

I didn't mean to imply that the N4/N6/N8 (particularly the N8) were GOOD options, merely that they existed. Having previously lived in the area taken them for a few years I share your frustration.

I've also taken the N6 on that crazy loop. I've always assumed it was to service both the N4 and N2 routes with one route.

You're also right regarding the interaction between the law school and main campus. I went to undergrad at AU and if I am not sure I ever met a WCL student while I was there.

by Steven Yates on Jun 19, 2010 10:30 pm • linkreport

The proposed AU law site is zoned as residential. Any benefit of moving the law school must be weighed carefully against the costs to the neighborhood. The author asserts that moving the law school will lead to the “re-vitalization” of the Tenley corridor but there is no evidence that this will be the case. It is likely that most students and faculty will drive and so the proposed law school will contribute to further gridlock on Wisconsin and Nebraska, forcing even more commuter traffic to cut through neighborhood. More gridlock and parking problems may actually have a negative economic impact on local merchants, not to mention the people who actually live there.

by Greg Ferenbach on Feb 1, 2011 5:36 pm • linkreport

"A handful of those structures are designated landmarks, which AU will preserve." Not so. If you have seen the latest plans from AU, they are planning to raze Dunblane, regardless of its landmark status.

I will also point out that it's easy for people who don't live near the Tenley Campus to speak about minimal impact on the neighborhood. Developing this property will add to the incredible traffic congestion already surrounding the campus. The fact that AU won't allow an independent traffic study speaks volumes to me.

by Anne Schroeder on Feb 7, 2011 3:38 pm • linkreport


Your assertions about gridlock are supported by as little evidence as you claim the purported "revitalization" is. WCL makes the price to park in it's garage - whether student or faculty - so exorbitant that the healthy majority of students, professors and staff commute by public transportation.

by Ty on Aug 26, 2011 3:41 pm • linkreport

Actually AU's data shows only a tiny percentage take Metro, even though it stops only a mile away. No news that AU charges an arm and a leg to park, which is why people so often park in the neighborhoods. Metro will help some, but AU plans to expand its cash cow so much that the increased ridership will be offset by all the additonal users who drive. Even AU's consultants have admitted that Metro won't make much difference. I assure you the neighbors would love to see a credible parking enforcement plan from AU, an honest traffic study and of course for everyone to take Metro but none of those things is likely to happen. If you want a poster child for smart growth, look somewhere else.

by greg on Aug 29, 2011 1:07 pm • linkreport

Also, the planned Yuma St. construction will take out a small garden memorial for an old grounds worker, along with a small fish pond that was built by staff members, who also partially funded it, and planted by faculty/staff volunteers. This garden area has also been designated an official wildlife habitat.But that's ok-the country needs more Lawyers.

by No Name on Oct 3, 2011 8:00 am • linkreport

As a former WCL student I can attest that the school is scarily good about enforcing parking regulations. Students are currently not allowed to park on the street within a certain yard radius (it's at least 5 blocks if not more) of the school. The school itself was issuing $80 tickets per violation. This is even if you were zoned for parking in the neighborhood. WCL looks up the registration for each ticket it issues, too, and if you don't pay it, they put a hold on your student records.

by Anonymous on Oct 3, 2011 8:29 pm • linkreport

Anonymous, many AU commuters circumvent the parking regulations by buying a Zone 3 parking permit.

In fact, that is allowed as part of AU's parking policy.

by Anne S. on Oct 3, 2011 9:03 pm • linkreport

That is simply not true for WCL. I had a Zone 3 permit my first year of law school about three years ago and I got a ticket when I parked in the neighborhood one day. The school's reasoning is all students sign an agreement at orientation that says they will not park within a certain radius (unless you actually live right next to the law school) and so you have to abide by that even with the Zone 3 permit.

Also, the DMV doesn't just give those parking stickers out to anyone. You have to live within the zone to get one (with not only a lease or mortgage or deed but also utility bills, etc.).

by Anonymous on Oct 3, 2011 9:15 pm • linkreport

AU will only ticket cars that look like students drive them...and many students have wised up to this and don't leave backpacks, AU sweatshirts, etc. in their cars.

2,500 students/faculty with only 400 parking spaces (even with many Metro riders) will still mean that there will be overflow into the neighborhood.

by Anne S. on Oct 3, 2011 9:39 pm • linkreport

The author makes a good point that many of the posters seems to ignore: "For all of the potential benefits, the College of Law could still hurt the neighborhood. American could ask for an introverted suburban campus and receive an eyesore and a traffic nightmare. The negotiation between the ANC and the university administration will allow for specific terms of approval to be stated. Design guidelines, operations requirements, and community benefits can be spelled out ahead of time to ensure that both sides gain from the construction and trust is not broken."

Sadly, to date, AU has been incredibly opaque in its approach, and has not even prepared a traffic study approved by the Department of Transportation as it tries to muscle its way through the approval process. This project would drop 2,000 extra people right on top of three schools (St Ann's, St. Columba's and Janney) all less than a block and a half away. This would virtually ensure that the intersection where Nebraska, Yuma and Wisconsin meet quickly becomes one of the worst in the city. That is the kind of urban development that leaves passerbys scratching their heads for years afterwards saying, "what were those idiots thinking?"

It is not anti-development to expect an institution as large as AU to have an open conversation with neighbors and engage in rudimentary planning. As one poster rightly noted, this spot is not zoned for this usage, and the onus should be on AU to get this right and build trust with neighbors if it wants zoning regulations changed. Building that trust is increasingly difficult as AU has rushed to renege on virtually every agreement they made with neighbors and the ANC earlier, including caps on the overall number of students. Would anyone who reads this page place faith in an organization that claimed everything it had earlier agreed to in previous planning processes should be thrown out the window?

by JN on Oct 6, 2011 11:09 am • linkreport

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