WaPo Editorial Page Wades into 10 Year Plan Fight

Photo by Dionhinchliffe.

On Sunday, the Washington Post published an editorial on the Georgetown University campus plan. It was highly critical of the DC Office of Planning and the effort by community groups to insist that the final plan call for the housing of all undergraduate students on campus.

They write:

Imagine a city telling its largest private employer — one that pays millions in taxes and salaries, strives to hire local residents and voluntarily does community service — that it can’t grow anymore, that it might have to cut back. That seems far-fetched in light of today’s scary economy, but it’s essentially what D.C. officials are telling Georgetown University by insisting it either house all its students or cut back enrollment. The District seems distressingly disinterested in promoting a knowledge-based economy.

The editorial attempts to contrast the Office of Planning’s position against the city’s overall goal of adding residents. It argues that:

What’s most troubling about the city’s posture is the notion that an increase in young people, particularly those in search of an education, is somehow undesirable. What happened to the idea that these are the very kind of people that should be lured to make the District their home?

It’s an interesting argument. And it’s definitely the case that the presence of universities greatly contributes towards making a city a haven for the so-called Creative Class. But to suggest that the city is “disinterested in promoting a knowledge-based economy” simply because it maintains enrollment caps on universities is a bit hysterical. Besides, the vast majority of jobs in this city are either in the government or government-related, which will be here whether GU enrolls 14,000 or 15,000. Also, the editorial seems to have been written by someone without a strong familiarity with the situation; before it was corrected, the editorial talked about the neighborhood of “Fox Hollow”.

But that is really beside the point. What GM finds most interesting about this editorial is that it is clearly the product of a concerted lobbying campaign by GU. The thrust of the article is directed at the Office of Planning report, but that was issued in May. The only reason the Post is writing about this now is that the final Zoning Commission hearings are coming up.

Over the past month or so, GU has been rolling out a host of new initiatives to address the issues of off-campus students. They now pick up trash from students’ houses twice a day and run a late night shuttle to M St. They also increased the reimbursable detail of MPD officers patroling the neighborhood. And just last week, it announced that it will start working with DCRA to identify bad landlords.

As far as GM can tell, these are great initiatives! (One major quibble though: by picking up the students’ trash from bags, the school is encouraging students to leave trash out in bags, which attracts rats. They should insist that the students use cans, just like everyone else is supposed to do. It’s a small thing, but it really matters towards reducing the rat problem.)

But the thing is, there is nothing about these initiatives that they couldn’t have been rolled out last year. By rolling out these initiatives a month before the final hearings, it sets up the opportunity for GU to say,”Hey, we listened to their complaints, and we fixed it. So you can just disregard all that earlier testimony.”

The Post’s editorial fits neatly into this strategy (for instance it mentions that “Georgetown has increased police, provided additional garbage pickup and disciplined chronic troublemakers.”) So that’s why GM is convinced it was published as a result of GU lobbying. Which, to be clear, is not a criticism! If GU wants to win this fight, it better be doing stuff like this.

For what it’s worth, GM is the Secretary of the Citizens Association of Georgetown, but he’s not involved with CAG’s Campus Plan effort. Mostly he just wants the issue behind us.

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21 Comments

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21 responses to “WaPo Editorial Page Wades into 10 Year Plan Fight

  1. Jacques

    I think lobbying efforts are one thing, but this is bound to wind up in court (like the 2000 plan was, for about 4 years).

    As to the OP proposal, I don’t think there’s anything exceptional about an enrollment cap, and GU’s last several approved plans have included voluntary enrollment caps. (The courts in the last round actually raised the question of whether enrollment caps are legal, but did not strike that one down, in part, IIRC, because the University had already agreed to it).

    What is exceptional, and to me beyond the pale, is the OP proposal that would require (depending on how one reads it) GU to either:

    a) Build on-campus housing and force students to live on-campus, or
    b) Build additional on-campus housing that will not be used by students, therefore having a bunch of empty residential space rather than being able to use that space for academic, administrative, athletic, student life, or other uses.

    Speaking personally, I think the egregiousness of that proposal is worth an editorial, regardless of timing. I do think that the swipe at the District’s overall attitudes on education and knowledge-promotion are a bit gratuitous.

    If I had to guess, though, I would think the words, and the timing of the editorial were sparked by the Mayor’s year-old comments about needing to engage universities to move DC forward (combined with an exploration of lifting enrollment caps entirely), contrasted against his recent “I-stand-with-the-citizens” (and against the University) pose at the last ANC2E meeting.

  2. RNM

    Just a quibble with the post (small “p”) comments on trash collection, bags and rats.

    Having put my trash out in bags for 20 years, sorry, just don’t have an issue with rats ravaging my bags. Granted some of the students will not seal bags leaving them open and more prone to spilling over especially when kicked late at night by others, which frankly is way more of an issue than rats. We live in a city, all cities have rats and they always will. The city move to trash impose trash cans (which I believe they now charge residents for) has left large areas of the Georgetown littered with cans that fill the sidewalks several days a week. Many are simply stored in front of houses and some student houses have 3 or 4 cans that sit in various states in plain sight creating an eyesore. Often they are left with lids off or inverted collecting water and creating breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

    In an area where houses have back ally access then maybe a trash can makes sense…but in a community where such access is not the norm and where storage constraints of these large cans means they get left out in plain view…it feels like a poor solution to an unsolvable issue that has caused more harm than good. If there is not a solution, then there is not a problem. Absent a real solution that eliminates rats…one has to question if the ineffective and detrimental attempts provided are more than just bluster and noise to make a good show?

  3. Having lived in a couple of college towns and attended 3 different large universities, I find the enrollment cap odd, even if at one time GU agreed to it.
    My biggest concern is for individual freedom to live where one may.
    Would freshmen be forced to live on campus or everyone, including grad students some who have jobs and families? Also why on campus?
    The University of Maryland used to have a housing problem but there all sorts of shiny new apartment buildings near and a bit away to serve the housing needs of the school. The school also has this nifty bus system that serves the different spots far from campus where students and staff live. Couldn’t GU have something similar to reduce housing pressure?

  4. Charmed

    I’m having trouble getting past the Post’s misuse of “disinterested.” Embarrassing.

  5. Dizzy

    @Charmed:

    Per the Oxford Dictionary (
    http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/disinterested?region=us):

    adjective
    1 not influenced by considerations of personal advantage:a banker is under an obligation to give disinterested advice
    2 having or feeling no interest in something:her father was so disinterested in her progress that he only visited the school once

    If it’s good enough for Oxford, it’s good enough for me.

  6. Dizzy

    @TM

    But the thing is, there is nothing about these initiatives that they couldn’t have been rolled out last year. By rolling out these initiatives a month before the final hearings, it sets up the opportunity for GU to say,”Hey, we listened to their complaints, and we fixed it. So you can just disregard all that earlier testimony.”

    Boy do I wish someone involved with this on GU’s side actually possessed that sort of tactical acumen. Alas, there isn’t. The explanation for the timing is much simpler: they didn’t roll out these initiatives before because they hadn’t thought of them yet. It’s not until the OP reports and the experience of having each set of concessions be met with nothing but intransigence that they decided yet another round of neighbor-appeasing measures was necessary.

    As for the timing of the Post’s editorial, I have no insight one way or another, but if it was designed to coincide with the final ZC hearing, why publish it in October and not sometime closer to 17 November?

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  8. goldfish

    Dizzy: Charmed is correct. What the Post meant was “uninterested”.

  9. Tanya Washington-Stern

    I am Tanya Washington-Stern, Chief of Staff of the DC Office of Planning. I am just seeing this posting today. I want to point out an inaccuracy in this posting that we have often seen repeated, despite the fact that it is included in OP’s report and has been stated directly by this agency: the Office of Planning did not recommend 100% on-campus housing. The recommendation says 100% university provided housing, which includes on-campus AND housing located off-campus, outside of 20007 zip code (see pgs 2 & 18-19 of the report). FYI, the university is already providing university housing off-campus within that zip code. Here’s the link to OP’s report to the Zoning Commission: http://planning.dc.gov/DC/Planning/Across+the+City/Zoning/Citywide+Development+Review+and+Zoning+Reports/Zoning+Commission+ZC+Cases/Ward+2/WARD2+ZC+REPORT+10-32+GEORGETOWN+UNIVERSITY+CAMPUS+PLAN+PUBLIC+HEARING+REPORT

  10. @Tanya Washington-Stern

    Thank you for pointing out that important yet overlooked distinction.

    Unfortunately, I think that actually hurts OP’s (and by extension the neighbors’) case. That position–as opposed to mandating 100% of students on-campus–is even more insulting.

    Rather than base this recommendation on the claim that students are better served living on-campus (a claim which has some legitimate points, but which I happen to disagree with), OP is merely claiming that students are not allowed to live in one particular neighborhood (in this case Zip 20007). Can anyone explain to me how this is a better solution? Who’s to say other neighborhoods won’t seek similar restrictions?

    This is the exact definition of NIMBYism. OP (and the neighbors) are saying not in my backyard, but other people’s backyards are fine. Well, those other people didn’t move next to a University so they probably would have more a reason to complain.

    Just my .02.

  11. Jacques

    @Tanya Washington-Stern:

    Thank you for the clarification. I wanted to follow up based on the language in the OP report:

    Does this mean that OP recommends that DC require GU to require students to live in University-provided housing (and prevent students from choosing to live anywhere else on their own, in 20007 or otherwise)?

    Or does it mean that GU would be required to provide 6,652 housing spaces?

    Also, when you say that the university is already providing housing in the zip code, are you referring to the parcels that are within the bounds of the campus (including the Alumni Square, LXR and East Campus apartment complexes), and the university townhouses also in the bounds of the campus plan, or are you referring to something else? Because if it’s the former, it seems intellectually dishonest to refer to squares that have been owned by the university (and considered part of the campus) for decades as not being part of the main campus. It would seem, instead, to argue for a revisionist history approach favored by some opponents of the university’s plan, suggesting that the campus be rolled back to the 37th street gates (even though the LXR property on 35th street, among others, is more than 100 years old). That same argument was made by residents opposing the 1789 block that was in the original University plans.

  12. Jacques

    Edit: On my previous comment (third paragraph), I meant to say
    “Or does it mean that GU would be required to provide 6,652 housing spaces… but leave them empty, as vacant real estate, if students don’t want to live there?”

  13. RNM

    Grace Bateman made a great follow-up to the Post editorial in the letters to the Editor section this morning, basically pointing out and issue that I have argued for years.

    If the city compels a move of all the students into University controlled housing does that actually improve the situation? I suggest it would not. Who is going to fill the sudden vacancy left by all the student tenants moving out? Most likely these properties are not going to flip and be gutted out (as most would need to be to make them liveable by people who can afford them) and suddenly become single family residences. The ongoing housing issues across this country only compound that. Instead, we would probably see a new class of tenants, the young professional. Just out of college working and living in a group housing situation. These folks would be well outside the “in loco parentis” oversight of the University or anyone. Instead they would be fully vested residents in this community with all of the protections that allow bad neighbors to exist alongside good ones. Instead of calling the SNAP line with an issue, all calls would be going to MPD. Oh, and if you think a 20 year old can host a drunken party that is too loud, you should see what a 23 year old with a legit ID can do. The devil you know if often better than the devil you don’t.

    I think the editorial has a lot of issues. The University is far from being a perfect neighbor, but it is also not nearly as bad as it was 20+ years ago when it tried to ram the Co-Generation plant down the neighborhoods throat. Students are not perfectly behaved, which also reflects on some piss poor helicopter parenting that failed to craft adults and instead dumps unprepared kids into a quasi real world. Still the tension that exists feels out of place with the reality of facts on the ground.

    One thing I am tired of reading and hearing when I was a student at GU, was that the University was there first…no it wasn’t the community was. The university was certainly there before any of us came to DC or were born, but that is not an excuse for being a bad neighbor or for the poor behavior of some (not all but some) of the students. Just putting that phrase out there poisons the discussion as it discounts any concerns about the University being a good neighbor, and it also sends residents into a defensive and divisive position that freezes lines of communication.

    Ultimately, the University is going to continue to be here…long after all of us are gone. The students will always be walking our blocks, and there will always be some level of tension. That is life, no need to follow the city response on rats (which will also always be there) and apply a remedy that is more detrimental to the community than the status quo.

  14. Topher

    Taynya:
    Thank you for the clarification. I am familiar with the distinctions you’re pointing out, but unfortunately for editing purposes (and perhaps just my laziness) I paraphrased it as “house 100% on campus.” That is incorrect and misleading, so I apologize and I’ll correct it when I get a chance.

    RNM,
    What an astonishing event! I actually agree with most of your second comment! Whenever I’ve tried to point out to people the likely fact that post-collegiates will move into the newly vacated group houses, I’m poo-pooed and told either that that won’t happen or that post-collegiates aren’t as bad. I can remember when I was a post-collegiate, and I certainly wouldn’t want to live near me then.

  15. asuka

    Are there a lot of post-collegiates who can afford $700,000+ homes? Are there lots of post-collegiates who can afford $6000/month rent? If G’town was an attractive option to them, they’d be here already. Post-collegiates are just that – post college. They don’t want to live like college kids anymore, which means the eschew the six-to-a-house lifestyle. If there were no students, those houses would be flipped like so many others have on streets that aren’t populated primarily with rentals (like S between 39th and 38th). In any regard, its a moot point – the neighborhood will NEVER succeed in getting the University to house 100% of its students on campus.

    PS. Did you see? I’m posting from NYC again!

  16. Dizzy

    @goldfish:

    Look at definition #2 again. Disinterested can be a synonym of uninterested. It is a secondary meaning, not the primary, but that does not make it incorrect. Because of context, there was no ambiguity as to the meaning.

    @RNM

    One thing I am tired of reading and hearing when I was a student at GU, was that the University was there first…no it wasn’t the community was.

    If you look at maps from circa 1789, not to mention contemporaneous accounts (Robert Emmett Curran’s history is, as usual, the go-to source), the George Town of the time was largely along the riverbank, south of what is now M Street. There was some development along what is now Wisconsin, but the tract acquired by John Carroll was describes as being surrounded by fields. None of the communities we’re talking about today – West Georgetown, Burleith, Foxhall – existed.

    You’re absolutely right, of course, that The university was certainly there before any of us came to DC or were born, but that is not an excuse for being a bad neighbor or for the poor behavior of some (not all but some) of the students. It definitely is not an excuse. But the purpose of pointing out the University’s longstanding tenure isn’t to say it can do no wrong or to say that neighbor concerns are all invalid. It is to point out the fallacy of choosing to move next to a university, to a neighborhood known to contain a significant proportion of student residents, and to then demand that all students be evicted from that neighborhood.

    In other words: students are not “invading” the neighborhood – they’ve been in the neighborhood for a very long time. The same applies to the University as a whole: it is an integral part of Georgetown that has been here since before the District of Columbia existed, not some external threat that is seeking to take over the neighborhood.

    @Topher and asuka:

    Post-colleagiates are already here in large numbers! I know plenty of them. I keep telling people: walk around Burleith and count the number of decals from fraternities and sororities not present at GU (which is only a couple) and decals from other universities. Some of those are GU grad students, but the majority are not. The $6,000/month figure is at the very high-end range. With the economy being what it is, low-level Hill staffer/think-tank/NGO/etc. salaries being what they are, and rents in places like U Street, Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant, and even H Street, Shaw, and Petwork skyrocketing, a room in a Georgetown/Burleith/Glover Park house continues to be a very attractive option.

  17. Topher

    “It is to point out the fallacy of choosing to move next to a university, to a neighborhood known to contain a significant proportion of student residents, and to then demand that all students be evicted from that neighborhood.”

    Well, for one thing, I think that argument also gets used to say that not only shouldn’t you argue that students be removed but that pretty much any complaint you have about students is invalid. And even if you restrict it to your version, it’s still a hollow argument. Neighbors have been complaining about the University for decades, so by equal measure no student could enroll at GU and then complain about the presence of NIMBY neighbors. They knew they were there, right? So if you wanted to attend a school without town-gown tensions like at GU, you should’ve attended some other school. See, it’s a stupid argument that doesn’t do anything to illuminate the discussion.

  18. Dizzy

    @Topher

    Well, for one thing, I think that argument also gets used to say that not only shouldn’t you argue that students be removed but that pretty much any complaint you have about students is invalid.

    Who is making this argument? From what I’ve seen, every serious participant in this conversation – the University, DC Students Speak, student media, etc. – acknowledge that student behavior can be a legitimate issue. They just don’t make the logical leap that “some small number of troublemakers means all must be removed.”

    And even if you restrict it to your version, it’s still a hollow argument. Neighbors have been complaining about the University for decades, so by equal measure no student could enroll at GU and then complain about the presence of NIMBY neighbors. They knew they were there, right? So if you wanted to attend a school without town-gown tensions like at GU, you should’ve attended some other school.

    I’m pretty sure you understand the difference between “being annoyed by other people” and “trying to get those who annoy you banished from your neighborhood.” Your comparison is flawed; the comparable one would be if students came to Georgetown and then demanded the NIMBY neighbors be evicted from 20007 en masse.

  19. Topher

    The point I was making was that the condition that the students complain about, namely the neighbors’ hostility to the students’ presence, was existant at the time they decided to attend GU. So if we can discount the complaints of noise etc. from people who moved to Georgetown after GU was founded (and plenty of serious people do, namely the Washington Post in this particular case) then we should equally discount the complaints of students who moved right into the middle of a decades old town-gown dispute. Personally, I don’t think “who was here first” is relevant to analyzing the merits of a particular complaint.

  20. Dizzy

    @Topher

    So if we can discount the complaints of noise etc. from people who moved to Georgetown after GU was founded (and plenty of serious people do, namely the Washington Post in this particular case)

    The Post is doing that? Really? From the Post op-ed:

    “There is no question that the neighborhoods surrounding Georgetown have some legitimate complaints. There have been issues of noise and litter and other problems by students living off-campus.

    It then goes on to say that those issues, while legitimate, do not justify the proposed remedies: “But the solution isn’t to banish students or punish the university.”

    It would be fair to say that the Post, implicitly, finds the complaints to be overstated. Given the sort of rhetoric emanating from the other side, warning of the impending destruction of the District if the campus plan is approved, that’s a pretty defensible characterization in many cases. (Exaggeration and overstatement are nothing new, of course – see, for instance, this recent piece in The Hoya about neighborhood opposition to 1789, including the great quote “One resident wrote to the Archbishop of Washington: ‘The clock on Healy Hall strikes … pealing forth over our neighborhood the ominous suggestion that our days as a residential community are numbered and soon … Georgetown University will extend all the way to Rock Creek.”)

    You’re also still trying to create a false equivalence. Students’ complaint is not, as you put it, “the neighbors’ hostility to the students’ presence.” It is those neighbors’ attempt to curtail their ability to live in the neighborhood, as well as to dilute their representation on the ANC through gerrymandering. I feel pretty confident in saying that students could not care less that some neighbors feel hostility in their hearts toward them. Attempts to use the administrative and legal machinery of the state to curtail student rights are a different matter entirely, however, and not one that should be accepted just because there have been some instances of it before (e.g. Westy Byrd).

    “Who was here first” may not be relevant when judging many things (behavior being one of them), but it is very relevant from a legal and policy perspective. The greater burden lies with those attempting to change the status quo.

    For instance, it’s evident that GU could never be created today. Imagine if some new college proposed setting up shop in the middle of Georgetown. The same goes for Duke Ellington – could you imagine if the city proposed building a big new magnet school in Georgetown that would draw students from across the city?

    So why are they allowed to continue to exist? Simply put, because they were there first – they’re grandfathered in, and any attempt to evict them would face a very high threshold in trying to alter the status quo. The bar is nowhere near as high with preventing new development(s) – there, the burden lies with those seeking to change existing conditions.

    The leaders of the Pitchfork Brigade understand this, of course, which is why they’ve attempted to characterize the University as the one altering the status quo. In this narrative, GU is unleashing hordes of students into the pristine villages at its borders, turning them into student ghettos. In fact, the numbers point in the opposite direction – fewer undergrads live off-campus now than they did in decades past. Still, for the purposes of argumentation, it is important to portray one’s opponent as being the agent of change, because with that comes the greater burden. In that sense, “who was here first” and “what was here first” do matter.

  21. Pingback: The ANC Responds to GU’s Recent Charm Offensive | The Georgetown Metropolitan

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