City Paper is not for tourists
When some desperate PhD candidate someday submits a definitive cultural history of town-gown relations, here’s hoping the dissertation includes the story of the Great Burleith Private Garbage Truck Battle of 2011.
The controversy’s most recent iteration entered the public record late one night in the beige and taupe room at One Judiciary Square where D.C.’s Zoning Commission meets. Ron Lewis, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E commissioner, was facing off against Todd Olson, Georgetown University’s vice president of student affairs and dean of students.
In years past, residents of the affluent neighborhoods abutting the school had complained about the trash generated by students who rent houses there. So, last year, the school hired its own garbage trucks to supplement public trash collection. The city’s trucks come once or twice a week. The school’s come every day. Twice.
But if you think this sort of thing—a major research university prostrating itself before neighbors who resent a population of perfectly legal renters—would tamp down the animus, then you don’t understand the bizarre universe of D.C. campus politics. In this world, a university paying for private garbage service isn’t evidence of goodwill at all.
The bespectacled, tweedy Lewis began a cross-examination. “When the trash isn’t being picked up by your truck, it’s visible obviously, correct?,” he asked Olson.
“In some locations at some times,” Olson replied.
“And like most trash, it probably doesn’t smell so good, right?” Lewis shot back, springing the trap.
There you have it: The school’s effort to clean up stinky student garbage was clear and damning evidence of that garbage’s all-pervasive stink. Extra trash collection only means there’s extra trash.
For neighbors who’ve spent years battling refuse, rats, rowdiness, and other unpleasantness they blame on the presence of students, even a piece of institutional kowtowing—most locals would love twice-a-day garbage service!—comes across as a sign of disrespect.
It’d be easy to mock the sturdy Burleithers for seeing dark clouds in every silver lining. But the Great Burleith Private Garbage Truck Battle of 2011 is hardly the only case of collegiate neighbors making upscale Washingtonians act like sophomores who see a conspiracy behind the dean’s every decision.
In Wesley Heights last year, a neighborhood group demanded that American University prohibit students from hanging decorations in windows of a proposed new dormitory, lest they offend local aesthetic sensibilities. Residents near Georgetown University have pressured the school to institute shuttle bus service between the campus and M Street NW, should noisy students disturb residents while walking back to their dorms. The bus, having been duly established, is now derided by neighbors as the “drunk bus.”
And then there’s parking. In the neighborhood around George Washington University’s Mount Vernon campus, as well as in American University Park, locals have pressured the schools to forbid students from parking in otherwise legal street spaces. Campus cops have gone so far as to write tickets on legally parked cars that simply look like they might belong to students—because, for instance, books are visible through the windows. Now neighbors are complaining about accidentally receiving such tickets.
What’s going on here?
To some extent, it’s just a local version of the tensions that happen everywhere from Palo Alto, Calif., to Princeton, N.J., and anywhere else that comparatively comfortable neighbors live next to comparatively entitled students. All the same, the specific nature of town-gown tension here also reveals a great deal about the District’s essence. It’s a place where the bureaucratic rules for campuses—much of the recent upheaval is tied to the schools’ decennial efforts to gain required approval for mandatory 10-year campus plans—encourage an adversarial system replete with exaggerated gripes and over-the-top demands. It’s a place where well-off locals, lacking an infrastructure to participate in national politics, have a long history of using back channel access to get their way.
And Washington is also a place that has never, unlike some other big cities, been quite comfortable with becoming a bustling, urban center. Ours is a town where there’s no agreed-upon answer to the basic question of whether we really want to allow a bunch of quiet-seeking residents to stifle a university’s growth.
The story of how we organize building on D.C.’s campuses works a bit like a seminar on how D.C. organizes itself.
On the lawn in front of Gwen Verhoff’s Burleith home, there’s a red-and-white sign: “Our Homes/Not GU’s Dorm,” it reads. Several of her neighbors have the same sign. For the record, no one has proposed tearing down the strip of tidy rowhouses to make way for a residence hall. What Verhoff, a retired ESL teacher who’s lived in the neighborhood since 1975, objects to is the number of students renting there. “When I first lived here, students rented an entire room,” she says, not entire houses.
In a 2010 survey, the Burleith Citizens Association found that 166 of the neighborhood’s 535 houses are student-occupied—not counting basement apartments in owner-occupied homes. Georgetown’s own numbers were slightly higher: The school counted 191 properties with undergraduate and graduate students, or 36 percent. Critics won’t hesitate to remind you that, back in 2000, Georgetown predicted during testimony for that year’s campus plan that there would only be 20 student houses in the neighborhood.
Now, it’d be easy to lampoon the neighbors’ posture: It’s a free country, after all. Do we really want to government to say just who can rent a house somewhere? All the same, Verhoff and her neighbors have some legitimate gripes. There are a half-dozen student houses on her block, she says—a number that’s on the lower end for the area. Last fall, a party next door ended with a fistfight on the lawn. “I could hear fists hitting flesh,” she says. She’s also bothered by smaller gatherings in the tiny strip of adjacent back yard, which she says makes it difficult for her to enjoy her screened-in porch. And because her bedroom faces the street, she says, she hears everyone leaving the neighbors’ house late at night.
“I don’t think they’re trying to be mean and vicious,” she says. She adds that every year students come by, often with a plate of cookies, to ask that she talk to them before calling the police if a party is getting out of hand. But, Verhoff says, “at 1 a.m., I’m not getting out of bed, putting on clothes, and going next door to talk to drunk people.”
“Nicest kids, at three o’clock in the afternoon,” says Karen Cruse, a resident of West Georgetown. “At three in the morning it’s a different story.”
On one hand, these kinds of gripes are the inevitable, difficult byproduct of diversity. People with fundamentally different outlooks and lifestyles—not to mention schedules—are living in close proximity. In a lot of places, the blowback would be limited to some griping over the back fence. But in the District, where zoning rules create at least the impression that neighbors can influence land-use policy at adjacent universities, campus-specific spats take on a different form.
Scan the letters submitted as part of Georgetown’s decennial campus plan process and you find a slew of woe-is-me missives from residents who see themselves as victims of the students—and want the government to do something about it.
“Over the years my family and I have been victimized by Georgetown students: They have left debris all over my front yard, pulled up plants, hung underwear in the tree in my yard, thrown golf clubs over the fence into my back yard, climbed over the fence into my yard,” West Georgetown resident Lee Harrison Child wrote to the Zoning Commission last spring. “I’ve had intoxicated boys pass out on my front stoop…one boy last year woke me up to let him in because he thought he lived here!”
“I am constantly cleaning up beer cups, cans, and bottles from my front yard and have had many plants stepped on or broken,” Stefanie Bachhuber wrote. “Just last spring, I had my miniature, old-growth boxwoods devastated after a student fell into them one night. It is going to take years to bring them back to proper health. And one morning, I woke up to Silly String sprayed all over the sidewalk, my plants, and my iron stair railing (that took a good scrubbing to remove.)”
“I constantly experience red plastic cups for beer and liquor all over my front yard and steps, along with vomit, not to mention used condoms,” Betty and Roger Frankel wrote. “They continue to pull up all the flowers in my front yard that I plant each year, and I have lost several small boxwoods. The noise level is so bad my husband and I now buy Flents Foam earplugs by the case. We cannot sleep if we do not have these earplugs because the noise level is over the top.”
Bottom line: These folks make a pretty good argument that it’s no fun to live next to students. But there’s a bigger question for people who care about having the District be a dynamic, diverse, urban place: What’s the cost of controlling college kids—and who should bear it? If the presence of students is a good thing for a vibrant city, where should one place the Frankels’ understandable unhappiness in a hierarchy of needs?
On a January night, I hit the streets with Georgetown’s Student Neighborhood Assistance Program, which is designed to make sure neighbors get immediate relief from disruptive students. According to Georgetown spokeswoman Stacy Kerr, the SNAP patrols are part of a suite of mitigation efforts that costs the university about $1 million a year.
Just after midnight, I’m in the back of one of two SNAP trucks that patrol Burleith and West Georgetown. In the front is Cory Peterson, an area coordinator for the university’s Office of Residence Life. Peterson wears a heather gray sweatshirt and windbreaker, dark blue knit skullcap, and comfortable sneakers that add up to a look that’s more R.A. than peace officer.
At 12:30 a.m., we come across a few small knots of students. It’s easy to see why neighbors find them to be a constant source of noisiness: In a group of five high-on-life 21-year-olds, normal outside voices get amplified and bounce against the rows of houses on an otherwise silent street.
“It’s rare that MPD would come upon a situation that we didn’t know about first,” Peterson says, describing the close relationship between the cops Georgetown hires on weekends and the SNAP patrol. And, at least on the night I’m with them, this seems true. Peterson monitors every individual we pass, and takes notes on a clipboard about how many students he sees. The loop the West Georgetown truck makes takes about 25 minutes, if there are no stops.
When Peterson notices a guy we saw on the previous loop still lingering on the same corner, we pause while Peterson watches him. “Looks like he’s texting,” he says. We move on. Next time, the texting guy is gone. Peterson sees another man hanging around outside of a door, and we wait to see if the woman who opens the door knows him. She appears to, so we move on. Peterson notices a recycling bin is knocked over. The driver hops out and sets it back upright. We move on.
Generally, louder students quiet down quickly when they see the truck coming. (Neighbors like Cruse are quick to note that the noise returns once SNAP turns the corner.) Some snap their fingers at us—apparently it’s a thing they like to do—like preppy extras from West Side Story.
Around 2 a.m., we encounter a drunk couple leaning on a picket fence and arguing loudly. Peterson politely reminds them that there are people upstairs, asleep. The woman interrupts him sharply to declare that she and her sparring partner are fine. He points to the house behind her, asking her to remember the residents.
“Where?” she asks.
“That house,” he says.
Eventually, she huffs that she didn’t realize they were being such a problem. For the first time that night Peterson seems a bit rankled. Shortly afterwards, another drunk kid, who had been quietly making his way home with a few friends, suddenly yells at the truck: “Suck my cock!”
Peterson shrugs it off. “I’ve been called worse,” he says.
There are two takeaways from my night with the SNAP patrol. First, universities—with dollars, with their own internal discipline system, and with the help of earnest killjoys like Peterson—can change the dynamic in a student-heavy neighborhood. But second, they can only change it so much. In the end, if you’re going to have students, which most urban economists would tell you are a very good thing for a city, you’re going to have silly string on your boxwoods, no matter what you do.
But would you want to be the person who has to explain that to a bunch of longtime residents occupying $900,000 houses?
Some neighbors have their own solution in mind: Get rid of those damn kids. One Burleith proposal is that Georgetown build enough dorm space to house all of its students on campus. The only complicating factor: What if the students want to live in the neighborhood?
Washington may lack certain basic rights under the U.S. Constitution. But on the local level, residents are more empowered than people in many states to do one thing: say no. This goes for bars and restaurants and would-be condos. And it goes for college dorms and science labs, too.
The 10-year campus plan process allows neighborhood groups to weigh in on universities’ operations—and District law mandates that their recommendations be given “great weight.” Every decade, American, Georgetown, University of the District of Columbia, George Washington, Howard University, Catholic University, and Gallaudet University all go through the procedure. There can be fireworks everywhere, but they’ve tended to be loudest around GWU, Georgetown, and AU, which are in the city’s most affluent neighborhoods.
Typically, campus plans get to the Zoning Commission under one of two circumstances: 1) Talks have either progressed enough that both the university and its neighbors are in agreement or need a little arbitration. 2) Talks have broken down to the point of intractability on both sides. Hearings are where the process starts to look less-than-pretty. With only a decennial opportunity to stick it to the neighboring academic Goliath, the system incentivizes neighbors to play up tales of woe and to make especially outlandish demands.
In the end, most of them get whittled down into a status quo that leaves no one especially happy.
In the case of Georgetown, the neighbors got an unexpected gift last fall from the city’s Office of Planning, which recommended in a report that the university cap its enrollment at 6,652 undergraduates and house 100 percent of them on campus by 2016. Georgetown says it doesn’t have room for more beds beyond the 5,000 or so it already has on campus. The university and its surrounding residents have also argued about parking (neighbors don’t want Georgetown types hogging street spaces), jobs (neighbors are wary of the school adding new employees who might hog said street spaces), and student behavior. This particular 10-year plan has been up for debate since 2009; the next hearing is in May.
Somewhat ironically, American University faced the opposite problem from Georgetown: It’s actually trying to build dorms—but, of course, running into community opposition. One dorm’s location was unsatisfactory; the school agreed to move it. Another set of dorms, which are slated for construction atop what is now an unattractive surface parking lot, apparently won an OK from the Zoning Commission only after a series of arguments about window decorations, the color of the stone in the buildings, and the number of trees to be located between the buildings and the street. (A resident of the adjacent Westover Place gated community expressed fears that students would look into neighbors’ bedrooms from their rooms, as if college kids with access to all the pleasures of a coed dorm would instead play Peeping Tom on well-heeled Washington adults).
Neighbors submitted hundreds of pages of testimony, blasting the university as having a “total lack of willingness to be forthcoming and to constructively engage with the community.” Neighbor Elizabeth Nottingham clinched her letter complaining that another proposal from American, to move its law school to Tenleytown from its current Massachusetts Avenue location, will create traffic and be terribly noisy (law students are known for being noisy!). She insisted, “In short it will be objectionable, and I object to it!”
The process continues.
Things were comparatively quiet during GWU’s bid for approval of its plan, which wrapped up about two years ago. The biggest issue then was the expansion of the Mount Vernon campus—the only place the school has left to grow. The university bought the Mount Vernon land in the late 1990s and, in its 2010 plan, sought to build out the campus with half a dozen new buildings. There was some arbitration over details like building size, but the plan was OKed in March of 2010. (Some GU neighbors will tell you that GWU won its plan so easily because it had steamrolled locals in previous decades.)
Ultimately, D.C. area campus plan fights are pretty typical of any District real estate battle: You can find almost as much hyperbole in the arguments over the Tenleytown Safeway, or the West End Library, or any other place where denser visions of city life bump into residents’ leafy ambitions. It also helps explain why so much of D.C.’s campus unpleasantness is located at AU and Georgetown, neighborhoods where people have more resources and simultaneously feel more put-upon by creeping density.
By the time the current rounds are over, the universities will probably get most of what they want. The dirty little secret of the process is that, for all the absurd demands and ill-will the process generates, the schools usually win more than they lose. It’s essentially a performance-based process. Both sides make a slew of requests, many of which they plan to abandon in order to get what they really want. Georgetown offers up garbage service, but really doesn’t want to play ball on housing everyone on campus. AU will redesign a dorm to fit a neighbor’s suburban-style image, but really wants to build the East Campus facilities.
But if the schools are always OK, all of the posturing doesn’t exactly yield good results for the city. In the case of AU—where, unlike nearly every campus on Earth, it’s bafflingly hard to find a sandwich shop on a neighborhood street—new development could leverage a degree of retail and transit that would actually benefit the entire city. But it’s unclear whether that will be the sort of stuff that the school has to give up in order to get its biggest projects through. Neighborhood ambitions, despite years of urban-planning sentiment to the contrary, seem focused on keeping campus buildings and retail hidden, rather than leveraging growth to get themselves some of the fun stuff that comes when your million-dollar grown-up house happens to sit near the residence halls of a bunch of young people.
Likewise, for all the alarms about traffic, neighbors made little noise about improving public transit as a condition of campus growth—or even saving the N8 bus route, which the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Agency axed last October. In the end, the AU campus plan conflict was a particularly Washingtonian kind of urban planning politics, more focused on saying no than anything else. Like so many other land use debates, it focuses less on what the District is—a big city that, among other things, has a lot of students in it—than on its most upscale residents’ various suburban fantasies about what sort of place they’d like it to be. No wonder campus politics are so acrimonious.
The past few years have seen one interesting byproduct of town-gown planning politicking: Students, who in D.C. once focused on the big story of national politics, have gotten involved in the most mundane local level by running for Advisory Neighborhood Commission. Winning an ANC—there are a few Single-Member Districts where dorm residents make up the majority of constituents—presumably puts students in a position to rebut some of the charges against their ilk.
I meet Deon Jones, an AU student and ANC 3D commissioner, at the university’s student hub, the Mary Graydon Center, in January. Jones says his district includes fewer than 40 non-students; one house in his constituency is the D.C. home of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Clean-cut and dressed in a slim black peacoat, tie, black pants, and shined shoes, the Atlanta native has come straight from Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church at Rhode Island Avenue and 4th Street NE. He carries his choir robes in a small, wheeled suitcase.
A sophomore who lives in the dorms, Jones is empathetic to the neighbors, to an extent. “AU is doing the biggest development they’ve ever proposed, so in some ways you can understand how that may frustrate the neighbors,” he says. On the other hand, he points out that Westover Place, the gated community of neighbors who are most vocally opposing the new development, was itself an opposed development during its construction in the late ’70s.
When it comes to town-gown animosity, “the peak period for our campus plan were the first few meetings. ‘Anti-AU’ was the bandwagon,” Jones says, laughing. “I always say, ‘I’d rather drive a BMW than a bandwagon,’ so I tried to see all the sides.”
In the half-empty Nebraska Avenue Commuter Lot—home of the future East Campus—Jones gestures to where commercial buildings will sit facing Nebraska Avenue NW. “It needs to be something here,” he says. “American needs dorms. Students are tripled up and others live off-campus because of the lottery. This can’t just be a parking lot for all of its life.”
Jones says Barack Obama’s election inspired him to run a write-in candidacy for an open seat on ANC 3D at age 19. His relatively short time dealing with the campus plan has been an eye-opener. “When I think about local politics, it’s so dirty and so special-interest, it leaves little room for compromise.”
It’s easy to think that Jones would make a very nice neighbor indeed.
But it’s not likely that people like him will actually ever resolve the perpetual conflict over D.C.’s campuses. In part, that’s because town-gown battles are the kind of diversity divides that are truly intractable: Different people, with different interests, that are going to stay different.
Which is why, if universities want to find a way out of their decennial maze, it might be less about mitigating some students’ lack of neighborliness and more about playing up their own charms. The sad thing about D.C.’s dysfunctional relationships with its colleges is that almost no one makes a case that ought to be obvious to anyone from a less-educated ZIP code: Being next to a campus is a great amenity.
Universities have libraries. They have ball fields. They have lectures. Georgetown and GWU have world-class hospitals. Would you rather live near one of those, or in just another tract of middle-class houses whose residents lead quiet lives?
D.C.’s colleges, if they really want to get neighbors on board, could do more to advertise these positives. Yes, they allow locals to join gyms. They allow people in adjacent ZIP codes to audit classes. And they occasionally invite neighbors to discount sports games and cultural events and lectures. But they don’t advertise it enough. They should be blanketing the neighborhoods with fliers, sending out student ambassadors, and helping spread the word that living in Burleith or Wesley Heights or Foggy Bottom means getting access to great stuff you wouldn’t have if you washed up in Chevy Chase or Dupont Circle. The smart thing to do—especially for institutions in the business of being smart—is to switch their focus from damage control to playing up the positives.
Of course, even the most generous access to campus amenities would only win so much love.
Karen Cruse of West Georgetown, for instance, says she knows all about the lectures and film festivals and campus Shakespeare productions and the like. “There are a lot of positive things,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t get upset about the negative.”