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D.C. Zoning Commission raises concerns about AU Campus Plan

Correction appended

Members of the D.C. Zoning Commission expressed concern that “more work needs to be done” on the AU Campus Plan at the seventh hearing on the plan Nov. 4.

The comments came after AU presented its rebuttal, replying to neighbors’ assertions that aspects of the plan, such as East Campus and moving the Washington College of Law to Tenley Campus, would negatively impact traffic and the quality of life in the neighborhoods near AU.

“The overall picture that I’m getting of the plan as it stands right now is: a lot of what you’ve done is very sensible, but it seems like there’s still some room for improvement,” Zoning Commissioner Peter May said to AU representatives, including Chief of Staff David Taylor, AU’s legal consul Paul Tummonds from Goulstan & Storrs’ real estate group and other AU representatives and consultants.

Commission concerned with AU’s communication

The commissioners expressed concerns that AU is not effectively communicating with neighborhood groups that oppose the plan.

Commission Chairman Anthony Hood asked Taylor why the commission is hearing from the neighbors that AU is not being responsive.

“Here’s the thing, why do I hear so much of that if, it’s common now to hear some, but we’ve heard a lot of that, a lot of ‘American’s not listening, American University’s not listening,’” Hood said. “It was an abundance of it; it was louder than usual. I think, something’s wrong, I just don’t know what it is, I haven’t figured it out yet, but something’s wrong.”

However, Hood said he remembered the hearings 10 years ago on the Katzen Arts Center, which also faced opposition from the community at the time. During the recent hearings, though, neighbors have included Katzen among the things they like best about the University.

“There was some opposition, and I heard tonight how great the Katzen Center was, so, you know, those are the kind of outcomes that we want to achieve,” Hood said.

Commissioner May suggested that the divide might come from how the University is speaking to people and showing photos that appear deceptive.

May mentioned Michelle Espinosa, AU’s associate dean of students, saying she was going to “correct” previous testimony during her section of AU’s rebuttal. He also said some of AU’s diagrams, models and photos of what East Campus will look like may be seen as deceptive. The projections often show an unrealistic thickness of trees or are taken from a flattering angle, May said.

“It creates this impression that things look better than they really are,” he said.

Tummonds, Taylor and other AU representatives said the University has revised its plans in response to neighbors’ comments, including the “buffer” area between the proposed East Campus buildings and Westover Place townhomes.

“We have done many things to address the concerns that have been raised to us, we haven’t necessarily done them in the exact fashion that people have wanted,” Tummonds said.

Commissioner questions AU’s use of retail space

Zoning Commission Vice-Chairman Konrad Schlater said he was “grappling with” how AU uses commercial and retail space.

AU owns several properties that are zoned for commercial use, such as the space near Chef Geoff’s on New Mexico Avenue. Many AU offices, including Human Resources, are in that space.

Throughout the hearings, neighbors have said AU is taking over commercial areas, mentioning the departure of the gourmet grocery story Balducci’s from AU-owned space.

While Schlater acknowledged that it is outside the commission’s purview to suggest how AU handles its commercially zoned property, he said that, to be a good neighbor, AU needs to make an effort to bring retail into commercial property and not employ it for administrative uses.

“It does seem to me that, if you own property that could be used for retail in the commercial zone, and you turn that into administrative offices, that AU is not utilizing all of its potential resources to fill that retail need for the campus,” Schlater said.

“There’s not a lot of commercially-zoned area at the ground level in this neighborhood and, when it gets used for University admin uses, you’re taking away an amenity for the neighborhood,” he continued. “And then, on the other hand, you’re saying, I want to go into a residentially-zoned area and provide 20,000 square feet of retail [on East Campus]. It doesn’t really add up.”

AU responds to concerns

The University presented its rebuttal at the hearing, replying to opposition groups’ concerns, questions and statements regarding the plan.

Representatives illustrated how the University worked with neighbors to mitigate aspects of the plan that they saw as objectionable. Such measures included:

  • reducing the number of proposed bleacher seats at Reeves Field from 2,000 to 250,
  • providing breakdowns of student populations and off-campus parking enforcement
  • and providing specifics on the trees that will be planted in the landscape buffer behind East Campus.

The University also hired a company to conduct a noise study to determine the impact of noise from East Campus buildings on Westover Place residents.

The academic “buffer” buildings that will be closest to Westover will act as sound buffers, according to the study.

Sound from normal activities will not be above the level of background noise, said Kevin Miller of Miller, Beam & Paganelli, the acoustics and vibration company that conducted the study. The worse case scenario (loud party music from multiple sources) would be about 51-58 decibels and could be managed by AU.

“My professional opinion is that it [East Campus dorms] will not create an objectionable condition” for the neighbors, Miller said.

D.C. councilmember does not support Campus Plan

D.C. Councilmember At-Large Michael Brown read his letter of concern regarding the Campus Plan at the hearing.

In the letter, Brown says the Campus Plan is “not a realistic plan,” raising many of the concerns the commissioners raised later in the meeting. Key points in Brown’s letter included:

  • “The 2011 AU Plan calls for unprecedented growth adding nearly 1 million [gross square feet] of new buildings.”
  • “AU has chosen a path to meet these two objectives [the construction of new student housing and a new law school] that prove objectionable to neighbors when other options are available that would be less objectionable or not objectionable at all.”
  • “AU has been expanding its footprint into the neighborhood over the last ten years by purchasing additional commercial space for university uses that falls outside the purview of the Zoning Commission and the campus plan process.”
  • “The amount of the growth proposed by AU suggests the extraordinary nature of this plan and its potential for long-lasting and permanent negative impacts on residents.”
After reading the letter, Brown said the Campus Plan may need to be redrawn.

“This plan may need to be scrapped, and sit down again with folks again so we can figure out what to do to have a better path and a much more positive path,” Brown said.

Opponents suggest Southeast satellite campus, raise safety concerns

Over 20 people who oppose the Campus Plan spoke to the commission about their concerns during the first half of meeting.

Some speakers called AU a bully, saying the University has not listened to the community’s concerns.

Many residents said AU should consider a satellite campus for the law school rather than moving it to Tenley.

Shirley Buttrick, of 2828 Wisconsin Avenue, suggested moving the law school to Southeast D.C., saying that Southeast would welcome the development and investment that would come with the school and its students.

One female Westover Place resident said she was worried about the physical safety of students, who, according to her, do not pay attention to their surroundings and ignore stoplights.

Another Westover resident, Maria Cress, said students are “out of touch with their own safety,” that they are “carefree” and cross the street without looking in either direction.

Other residents requested at least a 120-foot buffer between proposed East Campus buildings and Westover Place townhomes. They also requested that the buffer area be secured and off-limits to students.

“[The buffer will be a] haven for parties and mischief,” Westover resident Gail Donovan said, stating that the area will be a space for students to congregate.

Groups opposed to the plan questioned AU on its rebuttal at the zoning hearing Nov. 7.

The Zoning Commission will hold a public hearing Jan. 23, 2012, to possibly release its decision on the plan.

Visit american.edu/finance/fas/2011-Campus-Plan.cfm for more information on the plan.

landerson@theeagleonline.com

A previous version of this article misidentified Michelle Espinosa, AU's associate dean of students, as Penny Pegano, AU's director of community and local government relations. The article also said that the Zoning Commission will make a decision within 30 days of the final hearing, but the commission will possibly make a decision Jan. 23, 2012.


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