Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

Sign up for our twice-weekly newsletter!

GW vs. D.C.: a look at the on-going conflict

One of the first lessons incoming students come to learn is that the University has poor relations with Foggy Bottom community groups. GW and the District are engaged in a court battle over how much the University can build and how many students it needs to house. This story is The Hatchet’s try to give freshmen a perspective on a conflict that could have major ramifications for University policies during the next four years.

GW and the District have been engaged in urban warfare for nearly five years, as the University seeks the reversal of a city order intended to curb its growth in Foggy Bottom.

At issue is GW’s acquisition of property in Foggy Bottom for the construction of academic and residential facilities, which Foggy Bottom residents say damages the historic character of the neighborhood. Seeking a halt to this cottage industry of construction, city officials, responding to Foggy Bottom residents’ concerns, have restricted GW’s growth by mandating that it house a majority of its students on campus or outside Foggy Bottom before it can break ground on non-residential buildings.

The order, enacted by the city’s Board of Zoning Adjustment, requires GW to house 70 percent of its undergraduate students – including all freshmen and sophomores – within BZA-defined campus boundaries or outside Foggy Bottom by fall 2002.

Residence halls the Aston, City Hall, the Hall on Virginia Avenue and the Pennsylvania House – which are all located in Foggy Bottom – are not counted as being within the boundaries.

In the 2002-03 academic year, GW housed 52 percent of its 8,900 undergraduate students within the boundaries or outside Foggy Bottom, according to the University’s Office of Institutional Research. While housing figures for the upcoming academic year were not available as of press time, calculations by The Hatchet show that GW will once again fall short of the housing requirement.

By 2006, GW must house 70 percent of students entirely within BZA-defined campus boundaries, precluding it from counting the more than 400 beds at the Mount Vernon Campus – which are outside Foggy Bottom.

The BZA, which serves as an independent arbiter in zoning disputes between the District and outside organizations, has prohibited GW from constructing buildings that are less than 50 percent residential until it complies with the order.

The restrictions were attached to GW’s Campus Plan, which was first presented to the BZA in 2000. Each District-area university is required to present a Campus Plan to the city outlining their intentions for a given number of years. The BZA can then amend the campus plan if its members decide that certain parts of the plan adversely affect District residents. GW’s amended Campus Plan, approved by the BZA in February 2001, expires in 2010.

The restrictions jeopardize plans for the construction of several new facilities, including a new business school building to be erected between Funger and Madison halls. GW was slated to begin construction on the building this spring but held off because of the order. This moratorium of non-residential facilities will continue to hinder GW until it complies with the order or wins its reversal in District court.

University officials are seeking to overturn the order in the D.C. Court of Appeals, which heard opening arguments June 19 and will issue a ruling some time next year, said University Senior Counsel Charles Barber.

“We think we have a very strong legal case,” said Barber, cautiously optimistic but cognizant of GW’s past defeats in federal court.

GW originally contested the BZA order in U.S. District Court in April 2001, claiming the housing requirement and restrictions on the University’s growth violated the University’s First Amendment right to academic freedom. The order also capped GW’s undergraduate enrollment at 7,380 – rendering it unable to accept its full 2001 freshman class – until it complied with the housing requirement.

In June 2001, the court abolished the enrollment cap while it deliberated the case, allowing GW to admit its full freshmen class of 2,550, which would have exceeded the 7,380-student limit by 450. The enrollment ruling was a prelude to a larger victory over the BZA, when the court overturned the housing requirement in April 2002, allowing GW to continue building non-residential facilities.

But while the court ruled against the order, it upheld the BZA’s right to place restrictions on GW’s growth, paving the way for an appeal of the split decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals.

In February 2003, a three-judge panel in the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the BZA’s right to restrict GW’s growth, and reinstated the on-campus housing requirement. In a small victory for GW, the panel upheld the previous ruling that the enrollment cap violated GW’s academic rights.

“It’s not over,” said Barber in a Feb. 6 Hatchet article, adding that GW would appeal to the full nine-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals.

But the full panel declined to hear GW’s case, forcing the University to challenge the BZA order in District court.

Barber said GW would be challenging the BZA order under the D.C. Human Rights Act, a law that includes provisions prohibiting discrimination against students based on matriculation.

University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said the District has violated students’ rights by limiting their housing options.

“We think this is unconscionable,” Trachtenberg said in an interview last month.

Barber said the University’s inability to build new academic facilities such as the business school building could lead to overcrowding in classrooms.

New on-campus residence halls, such as the Greek-letter Townhouse Row and the Ivory Towers, scheduled to open in fall 2003 and fall 2004 respectively, will help GW comply with the order, but will still not bring GW into compliance with the BZA order, Barber said.

Barber said GW is also looking into building residence halls in the parking lots adjacent to Francis Scott Key Hall and the School Without Walls.

Foggy Bottom residents, dismayed by the University’s expansion, said GW has not done enough to come into compliance with the order.

“They’ve known for a long time what the conditions are and they haven’t done much of anything,” said Jacqueline Lemire, former president of the Foggy Bottom Association, an organization engaged in a Lilliputian-like struggle against GW. “They’ve been dragging their feet.”

“We just need the time to build the housing,” said Trachtenberg, noting GW’s intention has always been to comply with the order. “And I haven’t been able to figure out why the city thinks that if they’re mean to us, we’re going to be able to build the housing any faster than we’re able to build it.”

Barber said he is unsure whether GW will be able to comply with the order requiring GW to house 70 percent of its undergraduate students – including all freshman and sophomores – on campus by 2006.

-Mosheh Oinounou contributed to this report.

More to Discover
Donate to The GW Hatchet