Citypaper Gives Campus Plan Cover Article Treatment

This week, the Washinton Citypaper dedicated its cover article to the long drawn out campus plan issue. While the article touches on campus plans across the city, it is primarily concerned with the Georgetown campus plan. It’s definitely worth a read.

For the most part, the author of the piece, Shani O. Hilton, takes the position that you would expect the Citypaper to take, which is that Georgetown neighbors are rich (or as Hilton repeatedly put it: “affluent”, “comfortable”, “well-heeled”, “occupiers of $900,000 houses”, and “upscale”) and knew the university was there, so tough. This argument carries a lot of weight with people inclined to view this situation through the lens of the plot of Footloose. And the comments section is somewhat ripe with the choir echoing Hilton’s praisings. But it’s not a particularly novel insight and it’s an irrelevant point under the zoning laws.

But that’s only one aspect of Hilton’s generally strong article, in another part she makes this interesting observation:

Much of the recent upheaval is tied to the schools’ decennial efforts to gain required approval for mandatory 10-year campus plans—encourage an adversarial system replete with exaggerated gripes and over-the-top demands.

This is an often overlooked point. One of the main reasons this is such a drawn out process is that it only happens once every ten years. Lacking any way to meaningfully affect Georgetown’s behavior for nine years, the neighbors have an incentive to load a decade’s worth of complaints and wishes into this one shot. Once this process is done, it won’t be until 2020 that the neighbors have any leverage again. It makes the whole process unnecessarily confrontational and it gives each side credible reasons to think they’re the victim.

There are some that will make the points Hilton made about the value of universities to the city to argue that GU shouldn’t be subject to any campus plan review. Fair enough, but to those that think there is a legitimate role in the government stepping in to balance the respective interests of a university and its neighbors, maybe the answer is to release the pressure a bit by making it an ongoing process rather than a once-in-a-decade process.

As Commissioner May stated at the Zoning hearing, perhaps it would make sense to set certain standards and then check back periodically–way before 2020–to see whether Georgetown is living up to them. Maybe this would just turn the once-in-a-decade fight into an all-decade fight, but GM’s optimistic that forcing the parties together every so often could lead to more productive remedies of the problems, problems that Hilton eventually and grudgingly admits might actually exist.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Citypaper Gives Campus Plan Cover Article Treatment

  1. Dizzy

    “But it’s not a particularly novel insight and it’s an irrelevant point under the zoning laws.”

    Being not particularly novel doesn’t make it any less true. In any case, you’ve skirted over Shani’s deeper insight, which is relevant to the question of zoning (especially given the ongoing Zoning Code rewrite):

    And Washington is also a place that has never, unlike some other big cities, been quite comfortable with becoming a bustling, urban center. Ours is a town where there’s no agreed-upon answer to the basic question of whether we really want to allow a bunch of quiet-seeking residents to stifle a university’s growth.

    Washington may lack certain basic rights under the U.S. Constitution. But on the local level, residents are more empowered than people in many states to do one thing: say no. This goes for bars and restaurants and would-be condos. And it goes for college dorms and science labs, too.

    That is the deeper issue at play. You say “Lacking any way to meaningfully affect Georgetown’s behavior for nine years, the neighbors have an incentive to load a decade’s worth of complaints and wishes into this one shot.” That’s true as far as it goes (and is also not a particularly novel insight). But the bigger question is: how much power should neighbors have to meaningfully affect the university’s – or any other institution’s – behavior? To what extent is it desirable, either from an urban planning perspective, a property rights perspective, or a democratic perspective, to give a small group of citizens effective veto power over who can live in ‘their’ neighborhood or which lawful residents can park on ‘their’ streets. Certainly greater power to “say no” than residents practically anywhere else.

    Until that question is resolved, these battles will continue, no matter the timetable. I will add, for the record, that I live in close proximity to UDC and am equally appalled by the behavior and tactics of some of the Forest Hills/North Cleveland Park busybodies, the same ones who have done such a great job of turning our stretch of Connecticut Avenue into the place where restaurants and retail go to die.

    As an aside: as someone who ostensibly favors increased mixed-use development – correct me if I’m wrong on that – it is a little odd to see you fall back on current zoning laws as the justification for why residents should be able to micromanage university development and policies. The entire Campus Plan concept is a legacy of the segregated use zoning era – that’s why university properties in commercially zoned areas are excluded from the plan process.

  2. Topher

    “And Washington is also a place that has never, unlike some other big cities, been quite comfortable with becoming a bustling, urban center. Ours is a town where there’s no agreed-upon answer to the basic question of whether we really want to allow a bunch of quiet-seeking residents to stifle a university’s growth.”

    The first sentence is a bit of a mess. It has both absolute language that I doubt Hilton has actually researched (“Never”) and mushy language that makes the statement basically meaningless (“bustling, urban center”).

    The second sentence I would disagree with simply because I don’t agree that Georgetown’s growth has been “stifled”. It’s the largest private employer in the District! It has thrived, which is great. And like a large corporation, yes of course it chaffs at regulations telling it want it can and can’t do, but that’s not the same thing as being stifled (which, by the way, means to crush or suffocate.)

    “To what extent is it desirable, either from an urban planning perspective, a property rights perspective, or a democratic perspective, to give a small group of citizens effective veto power over who can live in ‘their’ neighborhood or which lawful residents can park on ‘their’ streets. Certainly greater power to “say no” than residents practically anywhere else.”

    What veto? Is there some provision in the code giving neighbors the prerogative to legal nullify the plan? Would be new to me. Or rather, are you referring to people exercising their right to petition the government? That’s not a veto.

    I absolutely believe in the expansion of mixed-used development. But supporting mixed use is not the same as ignoring the need to develop plans to manage growth of each use. I believe that to keep it “mixed” requires the balancing of interests by an entity like the Zoning Commission that can hear from multiple parties (who might express an opinion you or I think is ridiculous!) and decide on the right approach.

    This discussion is not helped by exaggerations on either side. I’m sure you recognize the anti-university exaggerations, but words like “stifle” and “veto” are also exaggerations of what is actually happening.

    We can keep writing long comments at each other, but I’d love just to sit down with you sometime. But you don’t use your real email, so I have no way to reach you. If you’re game, send me an email at editor@georgetownmetropolitan.com

  3. RobRob

    “Ours is a town where there’s no agreed-upon answer to the basic question of whether we really want to allow a bunch of quiet-seeking residents to stifle a university’s growth.”

    I’d love to know which town, city, or other municipality where this isn’t a constant question for residents and universities, colleges, bars, restaurants, condos, and every other potential urban (or non-urban) development. It’s pretty solipsistic to believe that Washington is somehow unique in this regard.

    The argument basically boils down to whether or not one believes that the government has the authority to assert control over private entities and a responsibility to balance the interests of its various constituents. If one agrees that government has that authority and responsibility, then we’re left with questions of process. Otherwise, it doesn’t really matter what the residents are demanding, or what the university is requesting, because it’s illegitimate at the start.

    Or to look at it in reverse, if one’s objections are rooted in the substance of the demands, then the process must be legitimate because it is just the degree and scale of the viewpoints that are at issue.

  4. Dizzy

    Topher,

    That actually IS a real email address – I made it after getting scolded by Alpert haha. I think for the moment it would be best if I held on to my relative anonymity, at least as long as I’m with my current employer. If you would prefer to stop filling up your comment sections with our back-and-forth, though, I’m happy to correspond with you directly.

    Also, per the Oxford Dictionary, the secondary meaning of “stifle” is “prevent or constrain (an activity or idea): high taxes were stifling private enterprise.” That was the usage I intended. I don’t think you disagree that the University is being constrained. If it’s good enough for Oxford, it’s good enough for me.

    I don’t want to go on for too long, but I do want to address your other main point of contention.

    You ask “what veto?” My answer: the backdoor veto, the one that comes not from the right to petition or provide commentary that is given “great weight,” but the use of political influence to circumvent official channels and use the power of the city government for one’s own ends. How else did Ron Lewis (ostensibly in his role as Chair of ANC2E, but while dutifully keeping the student commissioner in the dark) gain the ability to ghost-write the Office of Planning’s report? Thanks to CM Evans (and others) and with the acquiescence of Mayor Gray, of course. Picture a comparable situation, in which some state legislator is somehow able to direct officials in a state executive agency to allow their “objective analysis” of a particular situation to be written for them by a particular interest group. Or, closer to home, imagine if Vincent Orange got OP to allow their report on streetcars to be ghost-written by Lance Salonia? I have to think you would cry foul.

    Vetoes can, of course, be overridden. In this case, both the Zoning Commission and the courts (the latter of which is, mercifully, outside the control of the District government) have that ability. But that doesn’t negate the abuse of the process that has gone on.

    I’ll shoot you a note sometime soon.

  5. SSC

    “How else did Ron Lewis (ostensibly in his role as Chair of ANC2E, but while dutifully keeping the student commissioner in the dark) gain the ability to ghost-write the Office of Planning’s report?”

    My suspicions are confirmed, if Dizzy’s assertion is true. The rationale for “OP’s recommendation” that Georgetown University house 100% of undergraduates on-campus or outside of the surrounding neighborhood was weak and made clear that the report’s stance was politically motivated, not the result of rigorous analysis.

    “Picture a comparable situation, in which some state legislator is somehow able to direct officials in a state executive agency to allow their ‘objective analysis’ of a particular situation to be written for them by a particular interest group.”

    Consciously omitting objective analysis denies the public (and in this case, Georgetown University) their right to substantive due process and leaves the District of Columbia open for more lawsuits, lawsuits that DC Government will lose.

  6. Pingback: Details of the Campus Plan Agreement | The Georgetown Metropolitan

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