Showdown Over Georgetown Campus Plan
Community members, leaders and Georgetown University officials presented arguments for and against the campus plan at a meeting Thursday.
A healthy-sized crowd gathered at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Thursday evening for a special meeting on the Georgetown University Campus Plan. The Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC2E) session gave community associations and the University the opportunity to make a case to the ANC and community members about the proposed 10-year plan. Residents and students stood up time and again to ask pointed questions and make their voices heard in the debate over the University's proposed development, expansion and enrollment changes for the next 10 years.
Off-campus Student Housing and Conduct
The meeting started off with the most contentious issue: student housing and conduct.
The University was represented by Provost James O'Donnell, Senior Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer Spiros Dimolitsas, and Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Todd Olson.
O'Donnell spoke first for the University, staying away from specifics and talking more about the school's need for growth and the balance the school tried to strike with the plan, which he said is "modest." O'Donnell continued that the plan "does not include substantial new large building projects," but allows the University to "balance revenue and opportunities." The growth, he promised, would be "targeted" and mainly increase the graduate student population.
Olson took over the reigns and got into a few more details and concessions. He focused on voluntary enrollment maximums that would hold the University to a cap of 16,133 students. Additionally, he pointed to taking the so-called "1789 block" off the table, as a sign of good faith to neighbors who did not want increased density (or student neighbors) on the residential block.
As for poor behavior on the part of students, a topic raised by many neighbors in attendance, Olson said the University is working to update its methods and sanctions for handling student misconduct off campus. The off-campus student life program is "robust and innovative" he said.
New standards, still being finalized, would apply to students beginning in the fall of 2011 and would include higher sanctions and quicker "ramp up" for repeat offenders. Students will increasingly have parents called and may be threatened with suspension and their study abroad opportunities being taken away.
Once the University's 10 allotted minutes were up, the neighborhood associations had their say. Lenore Rubino spoke one behalf of the Burleith Citizens Association, Jennifer Altemus for the Citizens Association of Georgetown, Bob Avery for the Foxhall Community Citizens Association and Cynthia Howar was there for the Hillandale Home Owner Association.
Rubino did not hold back. She called the plan "obscure" and "nearly incomprehensible" for residents trying to determine exactly how many students would be added to the school's ranks. The University, she said, is planning an "explosion of students" who will further the "deterioration of blocks of homes." Rubino continued, arguing that University's attempts to control student conduct are mere "band aid" fixes that do nothing to solve long-term problems caused by increased student rentals in the residential neighborhood. Her statement drew a hearty round of applause from many in attendance.
The ANC meeting, moderated by Commissioner Ed Solomon, then opened to questions from the community.
Dozens of residents and students stood to ask questions and try to hit home their argument, for or against the GU plan.
Ken Archer asked the University directly about many questions and issues he had recently raised in a blog post on Greater Greater Washington. He challenged officials on the exceptionally high housing prices for students and the lack of effort to locate on-campus alternatives.
Olson responded for the University saying he understands that its housing rates are "in the higher range," but sidestepped saying it offers financial aid to help alleviate the costs for some students. Spiros chimed in saying the University needs new housing to be in an appropriate location, of an appropriate caliber, within a reasonable price range and possible to construct in the given timeline. The 1789 block, he said, had been the best choice from the University's perspective, but that, of course is now off the table.
Rubino responded on behalf of neighbors suggesting the University consider an option many others have, using a private entity to run off-campus housing in the form of an apartment building. After all, she added, then the University would not have to put the "outlay into building a dorm."
Moving along, Commissioner Tom Birch pointedly asked the University if the planned increases in student population had a financial aspect. "Is this a matter of economics and finance? That the additional students are needed to bring in tuition and pay the bills" asked Birch.
O'Donnell responded candidly, "I would never say a flat 'no' to that question."
Paul DonVito, a Foxhall resident, asked, "At what point does the University say that the current campus has reached its max?" DonVito asked this as the discussion had just turned to the "tipping point" factor of having too many students and nowhere for them to go.
O'Donnell said it would be "impossible" to put a number on students or programs as the school is constantly evolving. He admitted, however, that the current space on the hilltop is probably at “the comfortable limit” when it comes to undergraduate enrollment. O'Donnell added that in the "foreseeable to near future" the University could consider additional off-site locations for classes, especially continuing education level classes.
Altemus on behalf of CAG responded, "I don’t take at face value that you’ll find some place" for the extra students and programs. In short, the growth is unacceptable without a concrete plan for managing the increase in students off-site.
Several students asked questions and defended their right to be part of the Georgetown community. On behalf of DC Students Speak, Scott Stirrett said much of the language in the meeting was about "students taking over" like "Georgetown students are just visitors." Stirrett argued that students consider themselves residents and neighbors, just like non-students. He had a petition with signatures supporting the campus plan; it was eventually submitted for ANC review.
In quick response to Stirrett, Altemus said neighbors "welcome students if they obey laws. The problem is they are not obeying the laws."
Candith Pallandre is both a University professor and Burleith neighbor. She said she is torn between the students she loves to teach and her neighborhood. Pallandre spoke to University officials, saying when looking for housing solutions "I have not a question, but a plea: to think outside the box, to be creative."
Check back later this morning for a summary of other issues addressed at the meeting Thursday.