- The Washington Times - Friday, May 17, 2002

Residents of a Northwest community are threatening to sue American University if it builds a 200-car parking garage as part of a complex known as Building M saying it will attract traffic, create noise and disturb the tranquility of their neighborhood.

"To me, it's just a matter of increased activity on campus, particularly with the cars," said David Wilson, a member of the Tenley Campus Neighbors Association, which opposes the proposed 75,000-square-foot complex.

The proposed Building M, which was first announced a year ago, would be on the corner of 42nd Street and Warren Street NW. It is part of American University's plans for development during the next decade. Every 10 years, the District requires colleges and universities to submit a master plan. A spokesman for the school was indeterminate in his response when asked the purpose of the proposed building.

"What American University has proposed would be larger than [the nearby multi-level] parking garage at Fresh Fields You hear all the time about universities gobbling up neighborhoods, and we just don't want it to happen here," said Mr. Wilson.

He and his family, including two children younger than 3, moved into the quiet residential community west of the Wisconsin Avenue area four years ago. They choose Tenley because of the feel of the neighborhood and the safety of its streets. All that would change if the plans go through, he said.

"It's depressing for us," said Anthony Byrne, president of the TCNA. "We see the neighborhood being degraded by this elephant next door."

Many of the retirees and new parents in the neighborhood are concerned that the structure would detract from their quality of life. The homes, many built in the 1930s, are on narrow tree-lined streets. White picket fences are on nearly every street corner. The influx of 200 cars a day, which the building would accommodate with an underground parking garage, would be noisy and burdensome, neighbors said.

"Our lawyers are looking into what avenues we can pursue to make sure that a 1986 agreement is enforced," said Wes Egan, a TCNA member and 17-year resident of the community.

The map developed for the decennial Campus Plan portfolio shows that part of the eight-acre property would be the home of a new building and the below-ground parking garage. Existing trees and shrubs would serve as buffers, but the three-story complex would be likely to rise above the trees.

American University officials say the plan is nothing more than a wish-list item, and that the neighbors have nothing to worry about, for now.

"Building M is not one of the those projects at the top of the cue," said David Taylor, chief of staff to American University President Benjamin Ladner. "It is what we call one of the 'other projects.'"

Last week, however, the D.C. Zoning Commission issued an order allowing the university to go ahead with the plans, provided they begin construction sometime during the next two years. Otherwise, the school would have to start the process of public hearings and zoning approval all over again.

"This is a window of opportunity for them, which we know they are not going to let slip by," said Mr. Bryne, a retired accountant who has lived in the neighborhood for 19 years.

Mr. Taylor, however, said there are no plans to work on this structure anytime before 2004. He said the university is in the midst of several top-tier projects as part of the Campus Plan, including a proposed 120,000-square-foot Katzen Art Center on Massachusetts Avenue that is slated to open in 2004.

"Realistically speaking, we don't have plans to pursue this project in the next two years," he said.

But Mr. Egan, retired State Department employee, echoed the sentiments of other residents who are skeptical about American University's intentions. "I don't know why they would go through with all the effort they have for a project they did not plan to pursue.

"We have to react to what they propose," he said.

The plan calls into question the 1986 agreement signed by American University officials and the advisory neighborhood commissioner for the region when the original sale went through for a site purchased from St. Ann's Catholic Church. Under the contract, the school said it would use only existing structures and would not enlarge any of the facilities, except as written in the agreement. It also stipulated that the population using the property would not exceed 125.

Mr. Taylor said the university believes that the 1986 agreement is no longer valid and therefore cannot be enforced.

TCNA disagrees. A pro bono lawyer has taken their case, but she was reluctant to offer specifics. TCNA members would not elaborate either, other than to say that they are reviewing all their options.

"Obviously, possibilities are an appeal of the zoning board's ruling or a separate lawsuit against American University," said Mr. Wilson.

"Our view is that agreement stands alone and lasts in perpetuity," said Tad DiBiase, commissioner for the neighborhood.

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