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Build Up, Not Out

Officials at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., have learned that neighbors want to have a say in town/gown matters.
University Business, Sep 2006

One would think that what a campus does within its own borders matters mainly to the institution itself and the local zoning board. But officials at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., have learned that neighbors want to have a say in these matters, too.

"Rather than expanding out further into the community and creating tensions with the neighborhood, the notion is to grow up within the property we already own and maximize existing space and resources," says Sherry Rutherford, managing director of real estate planning and development at GWU, which is located in the city's Foggy Bottom section.

That means selling the city and its neighbors on a greater campus density, which is measured by floor area ratio. "The mantra is 'up, not out,' " Rutherford explains.

This spring, the school started soliciting community input on its expansion plans, says Matthew Bell, the design principal at Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects who manages the firm's D.C. office.

Efforts have included public forums and office hours where neighbors could come and individually comment. Bell and a facilitator, hired to act as intermediary, also met with local groups. Documents related to the expansion, which includes a mixed-use development near a public transit site, have been posted online as well ( "What will emerge out of this is a clear and predictable sense for the community of how the university is going to grow," Bell says.

Looking at the campus in accordance with neighboring communities is a newer strategy for GWU. "Before we were looking more towards what the campus needs. This effort is really drawn up and looks broader than that," Rutherford says. "We're replanning the campus in the context of the neighborhood."

In the past, the university did hear community concerns, but it was more about the "individuals who get attention because they make the most noise," she explains.

Reaching the broader community means hearing more voices.

Although maintaining green, open spaces on its campus was not seen as a priority before, Bell explains that the neighbors have shown particular concern for that. One academic development site, for instance, contains a corner with a small park with some trees. "We had the whole site noted as a redevelopment site," Rutherford says. But when GWU learned how much neighbors love the area, she adds, "we realized we could preserve the small park and still meet our programs."

Another aspect to the plan is developing a college-town feel to the campus, with more retail space being added to ground levels of university buildings, Bell says.

While the university hasn't yet gotten approved by the city district's planning office for its expansion, Rutherford is confident about the process they've taken so far. "We not working in a vacuum, hoping this will be supported one day," she notes. "Nothing will be a surprise to anyone in terms of what the university is asking for. We've all sort of worked on this together."


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