AU plans to house students at Wesley Theological Seminary
The arrangement will help the University make up for the delayed construction of East Campus
Forty-five AU graduate students living in a Wesley Theological Seminary dormitory will not be able to return to their dorms this fall, as the University has plans to sign a master lease with Wesley to house 55 rising juniors and seniors there in the fall 2016 semester.
The University is in a tight-squeeze to find housing for the 590 students that were planned to live on East Campus at the start of the fall 2016 semester, which after multiple construction delays will miss its planned opening date. That presents a number of challenges, chief among them that the University has a legal requirement with the city to house 67 percent of its undergraduate students on campus by the fall.
Administrators agreed to this requirement in 2011 when they submitted AU’s Campus Plan, a mandatory agreement with the D.C. Zoning Commission. The University currently only has the capacity to house 58 percent of students, according to Linda Argo, Assistant Vice President for External Relations and Auxiliary Services.
AU filed on April 13 for a one year extension on that housing deadline with the Zoning Commission, the governing body that oversees campus plans for city universities. But there’s another hurdle: Wesley Seminary is currently in violation of its own campus plan by housing AU graduate students in its Straughn Hall, as the plan mandates that only Wesley students may live on the campus.
For this reason, Wesley, at 4500 Massachusetts Ave NW, has submitted a request to the Zoning Commission to modify its campus plan to allow it to house AU students. The seminary admitted to the zoning violation, which was unintentional, according to Terry Bradfield, Wesley’s vice president for administration, in Wesley’s letter to the zoning commission.
This new agreement will be mutually beneficial for both institutions: AU will have additional spaces to house students and Wesley will receive more revenue by signing a contract with AU than they would have received from the individual leases of the graduate students, according to Bradfield.
“It does increase the revenue that we would realize from occupying the rooms at Straughn Hall and that was something that we just couldn’t turn our backs on that point and not be fiscally responsible,” Bradfield said.
However, it creates challenges for the graduate students currently living at Wesley.
Kara Andrade, a current PhD student at AU who is living in Wesley’s Straughn Hall, began researching the issue when Wesley did not open up the lease renewal process as it did last year. She then brought this issue forward to her fellow residents. Andrade believes that AU must consider the needs of graduate students that would have wanted to renew their leases for next academic year.
“AU continues to grow its student body at a very irresponsible pace that is creating hardships not just for undergraduates and their families but for the surrounding community here,” Andrade said.
In 2013, Wesley Seminary expanded its campus footprint with construction of an additional 76-bed dormitory, leaving the beds in Straughn Hall empty, according to Bradfield. Since then, the seminary has faced financial woes and struggled to fill its dormitories amid declining enrollment, according to its letter to the zoning commission. The only Wesley students living in the dormitory at this time are three student managers, Bradfield said.
Two years ago, the seminary began leasing housing to AU students over the age of 21 in Straughn Hall, one of the original buildings at the seminary dating back to 1958. Its website advertises the proximity of the seminary to the University and public transportation, despite the housing arrangement violating Wesley’s campus plan to only house its own students.
“In hindsight and after consulting land use counsel, Wesley now recognizes that Campus Plan approval should have been sought for the use of Straughn Hall by non-Wesley graduate students,” Wesley said its letter to the zoning commission.
The modification requests will come before the Zoning Commission at its July 14 meeting. The Spring Valley/Palisades Advisory Neighborhood Commission will weigh in on the matter before then, chair Tom Smith said.
“We need to let a little bit more time to see if there are possible ways to bring people together and reach a resolution on this,” Smith said. He added that the neighborhood has requested AU hold a special Community Liaison Committee meeting on April 27 to discuss next year’s housing.
To make up for the delayed East Campus, AU has also increased its master lease with Berkshire Apartments, from 200 students to 240 students, according to Argo. The University will also use 330 triples in the current on-campus residence halls, The Eagle previously reported. This was confirmed by Linda Argo, AU’s assistant vice president for External Relations and Auxiliary Services. Argo handles all leasing of non-AU property for use by the University.
Administrators are pushing to open the new Congressional and Federal Halls on East Campus by the start of the fall semester, but Constitutional Hall will definitely be delayed until mid-October, according to Argo.
“We’re still hopeful that at least two of those residence halls [on East Campus] will come in on time,” Argo said. “But, it’s very tight so that’s why we’re making an effort to have beds available and under lease so that if they don’t come in on time we have a place for our students.”
According to Smith, housing undergraduate students at Wesley Seminary, “which is closer to the residential neighborhood, has some neighbors very, very troubled.” Smith said he’s sympathetic to the financial plight of Wesley, but that AU and the seminary should have been more forthright in their proposal to house undergraduate students.
“I learned about this early in the month through a constituent,” Smith said. “AU never said anything to me about it … That’s not the way the process is supposed to work.”