AU files campus plan with D.C. Zoning Commission. Community critics say plan still needs work.
Nearby residents blame a lack of specificity and transparency in the plan-making process.
After a multiyear development process, American University submitted its 10-year campus plan to the D.C. Zoning Commission on Dec. 14. Although the University champions the plan as “student-focused,” it has drawn criticism on multiple fronts from the student body, as well as nearby residential communities.
In a student media briefing Tuesday, administrators sought to clarify multiple areas of concern that were previously raised by draft versions of the plan. Ed Fisher, AU’s assistant vice president of community and government relations, said that Black Affinity Housing is set to begin during the fall 2021 semester and will remain on campus after that point.
If Roper Hall, which in the spring 2020 semester was selected as the location for Black Affinity Housing, is removed, as proposed in the plan, affinity housing will be relocated before any demolition begins, according to Fisher. AU currently identifies Roper as a secondary construction site, to be used only if AU cannot build student housing on the two primary sites identified in the plan.
Zoë Washington, co-president of the Black Student Union, said that it’s important for AU to be careful with its wording regarding Black Affinity Housing, because Black students need a safe haven on campus.
“We’ve been asking for Black Affinity Housing for forever,” Washington said. “Black students have, time and time again, been kind of at the bottom of the list as far as priorities on behalf of the University. … It’s really important for AU to properly deliver on their promise.”
Some community members also took issue with the plan's drafting process. Former ANC 3D Chairperson Thomas Smith, a board member of the Spring Valley Wesley Heights Citizens Association, said that despite a declared consensus from AU’s Neighborhood Partnership, outside community groups still have grievances with the plan.
“The University keeps pitching this as a community-wide consensus, which it is far from,” said Smith, who's also a board member of Neighbors for a Livable Community. “It’s a consensus of the people that they chose to have in the room. When you only include people in the room who are like-minded, you know what you’re going to get.”
Both of the organizations Smith is on the boards of, which still meet in the larger Community Liaison Committee, were invited to join the partnership at its inception but decided not to participate, as none of the meetings were open to the public. The Community Liaison Committee was formed as a Zoning Commission condition for approval of AU’s 2011 campus plan with the intent of increasing communication between nearby residents and the University.
According to the partnership rules, members are expected to keep proprietary information confidential, including campus plan conversations. Fisher justified these rules by noting that conversations are kept under wraps until a consensus is reached internally, at which point the partnership usually conveys its conclusions to outer community groups.
Dr. Jeffrey L. Kraskin, the president of the Spring Valley Wesley Heights Citizens Association, said that he and others raised concerns about the AU Neighborhood Partnership with President Sylvia Burwell on multiple occasions. In an August letter to Burwell obtained by The Eagle, Kraskin campaigned for a “true consensus,” separate from the one presented by the Neighborhood Partnership, that further involved the member organizations of the Community Liaison Committee.
Kraskin told The Eagle Friday that he wasn’t aware of particular issues, which he presented to ANC representatives, ever being discussed or addressed.
Troy Kravitz, an ANC 3D commissioner and member of the Neighborhood Partnership, told The Eagle in a statement that campus plan discussions were comprehensive.
“Contrary to any suggestions otherwise, discussions with the community leading to the conceptualization, drafting and ultimate submission of the Campus Plan took place for years,” he wrote. “Not liking the outcome of a given policy decision does not imply the process was faulty or that it did not occur.”
Kravitz and nearby residents, like Kraskin and Smith, promote conflicting perspectives on how to effectively discuss enrollment numbers. Kravitz wrote that it is more important to implement a flexible approach that can mitigate a range of enrollment-related impacts.
Meanwhile, Smith and Kraskin emphasized the importance of including undergraduate enrollment projections, and possibly a cap, as the first step to creating University accountability and addressing the community impacts of a growing student body.
“Enrollment is an important number,” Kraskin said. “A cap is important to be able to know what the impact will be and how [AU] will provide for the population in order to meet their needs.”
In proportion to undergraduate enrollment growth, the campus plan proposes to add 500 new beds to campus. The proposal leaves wiggle room for the University to add up to approximately 700 beds if the current 200 off-campus master leased beds are no longer counted toward the mandated 67 percent housing requirement, according to Fisher. The University is required by the Zoning Commission to offer on-campus housing to 67 percent of its full-time undergraduate students, even if that percentage doesn’t end up being fully met by students who live on-campus.
These additional housing projects are unlikely to begin for multiple years, with renovations of existing residential areas, like Roper Hall, taking priority in the near future.
AU’s campus plan also proposes major renovations to the Mary Graydon Center, which were approved by the Zoning Commission twice before. The proposed changes are receiving special focus in this iteration of the plan. According to Fisher, plans from previous years to fully renovate MGC fell through due to financial and logistical constraints.
“Every campus plan is merely a proposal. … We have to give ourselves the opportunity to build if the funding is available and if the University is dedicated to building these buildings,” Fisher said. “We believe that by renovating MGC, building the Center for Athletic Performance and adding dorms, we will activate a section of campus that has been truly underutilized.”
The current construction pause on campus, caused by AU’s financial troubles and D.C. coronavirus regulations, will be lifted in the near future to begin residential renovations in preparation for the fall 2021 semester, according to Fisher. No new construction will begin until after the campus plan is approved by the D.C. Zoning Commission.