What’s Really Going On With GU’s Campus Plan Changes

As mentioned here on Monday, GU has amended its proposed campus plan as the Zoning Commissions hearings approach. The changes can be found here, but here’s a quick list of them:

  • Add 250 beds to the main campus by the fall of 2014, or if they can’t build more dorms on campus, they’ll locate these beds outside of the residential sections of the 20007 zip code.
  • By Dec. 31, 2013, move 1,000 students in the School of Continuing Studies to satellite locations.
  • Reduce the total proposed student cap from 16,133 to 15,000.
  • Build no more parking spaces on campus.
  • Agree not to hold convocations on the newly covered Kehoe Field.

There has been a lot of teeth-gnashing around the Internet since these changes were proposed, but GM thinks a lot of that frustration stems from not understanding the context of the situation. It is GM’s opinion that GU stopped seriously trying to win over the neighbors and the ANC a long time ago. As soon as it became clear that the anti-GU groups were not going to accept anything but a significant reduction of students living in the neighborhood, GM believes that school started playing to a different audience: the Office of Planning and the Zoning Commission.

Because in the end, those are the primary parties that will decide the fate of the campus plan. The Zoning Commission will be the party actually deciding it, but it will be greatly influenced by the Office of Planning. This represents a change from ten years ago. Back when the last GU campus plan was being submitted, it was the Board of Zoning AdministrationAdjustment that decided the case.

And the BZA actually ruled against GU during the first go around. In 2001, it approved the campus plan by modifying it to set an enrollment cap at the 1990 levels. GU appealed, and in 2003 the DC Court of Appeals overturned the BZA decision and sent it back for rehearing.

The second time the BZA heard the case, it swung dramatically back in favor of GU. Much of this has to do with the fact that the minutes to the original hearing were not well kept, so there wasn’t much of a factual record for the second BZA to rely on (GU successfully blocked CAG’s attempt to add to the record the second time around). Second, the BZA had a different composition by the time it heard the case again. The second BZA review resulted in, among other things, GU having the higher undergrad cap it requested and no overall cap.

But a lot has changed since that original battle. First of all, the power to approve campus plans was shifted from the BZA to the Zoning Commission. From what GM can determine, there were a couple reasons for this. Firstly, the Zoning Commission is generally viewed as having more expertise than the BZA. Secondly, the Zoning Commission is viewed as having a broader perspective on matters. This second factor is pretty important, as will soon be clear.

That’s because this change went somewhat hand-in-hand with another major change over the past ten years: the adoption of the comprehensive plan. The comprehensive plan is the plan that is supposed to govern all development in the city. It has a specific section on universities and neighborhoods, and it’s not particularly great for GU’s position. Among other things, it states:

The campus plan requirement provides a formalized process for community input on a range of growth-related issues. They are an important tool to proactively address issues that may be of concern to the neighborhood and limit campus expansion into residential areas. However, most of the city’s colleges and universities are engaged in ongoing discussions with the communities around them. Frequently raised issues include the need for student housing, the loss of historic buildings, the compatibility of proposed campus structures with nearby residential areas, and the loss of taxable land associated with university growth. Campus plans have responded to these concerns in a number of ways, such as increasing building intensity on-site to avoid the need for land acquisition, development of new dormitories, and implementation of numerous programs to manage parking, traffic, noise, and other environmental impacts.

Additionally it states:

Looking forward, the development of satellite campuses is strongly encouraged to relieve growth pressure around existing campuses. In addition to accommodating university growth, satellite campuses can provide new job and educational opportunities for District residents and help revitalize local shopping districts…

Encourage the growth and development of local colleges and universities in a manner that recognizes the role these institutions play in contributing to the District’s character, culture, economy, and is also consistent with and supports community improvement and neighborhood conservation objectives. Discourage university actions that would adversely affect the character or quality of life in surrounding residential areas…

Encourage the provision of on-campus student housing in order to reduce college and university impacts on the housing stock in adjacent neighborhoods.

Even the section acknowledging the need for colleges to grow follows up that statement with a statement discouraging schools from adversely affecting neighborhoods. All in all, the comprehensive plan is not terribly favorable to GU’s position.

So that all brings us back to GU’s changes to its campus plan. As stated above, GM doesn’t believe these changes have anything to do with trying to appease the neighbors. That’s not going to happen. GM believes, however, that these changes are about appeasing the Office of Planning. From what GM hears, if OP comes down on the side of the neighbors, GU will be facing a steep uphill climb to get a plan anything like what they proposed.

The move towards satellite campuses and dorms is an acknowledgement that that is the favored course under the comprehensive plan. So in that sense, GU is lobbying past the neighbors and straight at OP, and in turn, the Zoning Commission.

But it’s not all lobbying. GU also throws in an explicit threat. On the topic of student enrollment caps, they write:

Given the clear prohibition under the District of Columbia Human Rights Act against discrimination in housing based on matriculation, see D.C. Code § 2-1402.21, the University views any enrollment cap as a significant concession.  Moreover, as the District of Columbia Court of Appeals stated in 2003:  “we are of the opinion that the imposition of an enrollment cap at least approaches (if, indeed, it does not cross) the line between the exercise of legitimate zoning and land use authority and an ultra vires intrusion upon the University’s educational mission.”

What GU doesn’t state is that the court then immediately went on to say:

We therefore consider it imperative that, in order to justify a freeze on enrollment under the circumstances presented here, the BZA must make reasonably detailed underlying evidentiary findings in which it specifically identifies the need for continuing the 1990 cap and describes in non-conclusory terms the manner in which the retention of the cap would protect the residents of the adjoining communities.

This gets back to the record issue mentioned above. In other words, the BZA hearings were sloppily handled and the Court of Appeals had no evidence of what the BZA’s opinion was based upon. Given that situation, it’s no surprise it slapped the BZA down (and it’s also no surprise that the BZA was stripped of its authority to review campus plans).

Moreover, GU doesn’t mention that in that same Court of Appeals decision, the court specifically ruled that the DC Human Rights Act does not invalidate the zoning code and that they refused to base their rejection of the enrollment cap on the DC Human Rights Act.

Yet despite this massaging of the case law, it’s clear to GM that GU is threatening litigation here. And hey, it worked out for them last time, so who could blame them?

Between the changes, the lobbying, and the threatening, GM thinks it’s safe to infer that GU thinks that the cards are stacked against it. Depending on where you stand, you may think that’s great or you may think that’s unfair, but either way, this is what’s really going on here.


Filed under Zoning

8 responses to “What’s Really Going On With GU’s Campus Plan Changes

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