- The Washington Times - Monday, August 7, 2000

Universities periodically submit campus plans to the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA). Three large universities (George Washington, Georgetown and American) are seeking approval for 10-year-plans this year. The process is widely seen as fundamentally flawed, but responsible officials the mayor, Council, and Zoning Commission have yet to undertake reform.

Campus planning is meant to harmonize the interests of the university, neighboring residents, and the District as a whole. Current law seemingly requires strong protection of adjoining neighborhoods, allowing university uses only if they are "not likely to become objectionable to neighboring property because of noise, traffic, number of students, or other objectionable conditions." It doesn't work. The Council, in two Comprehensive Plans, and the mayor in recent remarks to the Federation of Citizens' Associations, have recognized that universities have been allowed to acquire, raze and convert properties outside their sanctioned boundaries at a rate which threatens the existence of adjacent residential communities.

Why does this happen? For three reasons: the universities cloud the real picture as to benefits and costs; the law is weak and unenforceable; and responsibility is fractured.

Universities employ thousands of people and spend millions of dollars. However, they also take property worth hundreds of millions of dollars off the tax rolls while costing millions of dollars in tax-supported services. Their spending benefits mainly other jurisdictions. Over 78 percent of George Washington University's payroll is paid to non-District residents, and taxed by non-District taxing authorities. The District receives only 12.7 percent of the jobs and only 15 percent of the income generated by the aggregate spending of GWU and its students.

Universities can strangle residential communities. GWU has recently acquired over three dozen properties in Foggy Bottom outside its sanctioned campus boundary, including hotels, apartment buildings, and many townhouses. In 1988, the BZA moved Square 43 outside the GWU boundary in order to buffer the adjoining residential community. GWU nevertheless acquired and razed the townhouses on that square.

Students often constitute a majority of the residents of nearby apartment houses in any event, because universities seldom provide adequate housing on campus. In its review of the pending GWU plan, the Office of Planning described the overall effect as being to push the community toward a "tipping point," beyond which Foggy Bottom "simply transforms into a 'University area'."

The law has proven to be too vague to require rejection or modification of university uses even when patently "objectionable to neighboring property." And even the weak review conducted of on-campus uses is not being required of properties outside the campus boundary, so long as zoning would permit the proposed use by non-university owners. Thus, a hotel far from the "campus" can be converted to a dormitory without any "campus plan" review. Expansion of university uses has become easier off the "campus" than on.

In both 1994 and 1999, the Council found that "[l]oss of housing stock is … a critical problem in Foggy Bottom/West End, aggravated by the lack of dormitory construction on the [GWU] campus," and that "a major cause" of the problem is conversion of apartments and other buildings to university uses. The Council directed that "adjustments shall be made to existing zoning regulations and campus plans to address these problems," and directed the Zoning Commission to clarify the regulations. The response thus far: silence.

Responsibility is elusive. Some Council members seem to believe they lack authority to legislate standards. The Zoning Commission can amend the regulations, but the BZA reviews the plans. The BZA has been reluctant to use the only leverage available, that of conditioning enrollment increases on needed changes.

Approval of a campus plan should require balancing interests of those affected, minimizing impacts on existing communities, and meaningful enforcement. There should be a sanctioned campus, within which the university can be afforded some relaxation of otherwise applicable standards. Outside the boundary, the burden on the university should be much higher, not lower, to justify expansion. Tax exemptions should not be available for non-complying uses. These are seemingly minimal concepts to guide planning for a "campus." They should be adopted before major universities are protected from meaningful oversight for another 10 years.

Michael Thomas is the incoming president of the Foggy Bottom Association.

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