We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
At face value, the Canal Road proposal doesn’t sound like a big deal. The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) would widen the Northwest D.C. road and hang a couple of traffic lights. The project, expected to cost $1.7 million—your federal tax money—would enable cars to make an easy left turn into the Georgetown University campus. The university promises that the expansion would ease Georgetown traffic congestion and is pushing for quick approval from the feds and a rapid start to construction.
But during the past few months, a storm of community opposition to the Canal Road project has buffeted the university. Three Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) have voted to condemn the scheme. Last month, nearly 100 neighbors jammed a meeting sponsored by FHA to denounce the university’s road plan. Opponents have filed an official complaint about the project with the Department of Transportation (DOT) and plan to ask the General Accounting Office (GAO) to investigate it. And, given the opponents’ track record, a lawsuit may soon be filed to derail the plan.
The Canal Road fight seems a tempest in a teapot, but only until one remembers the neighborhood’s acrimonious history. In the early ’90s, the university and a business partner, Dominion Energy (a Virginia utility company), proposed another seemingly innocuous deal: They would scrap the university’s coal-fired power plant and erect a cleaner, gas-fired cogenerating plant that would not only feed the campus, but produce 56 megawatts of electric power that could be sold to Pepco.
The university and its neighbors agree on little else, but they would agree on this: The cogenerator fight was one of the ugliest development battles in District history. Nearby residents discovered that the school and Dominion had concealed information about the size of the plant and about the business arrangements behind the deal (Dominion, not the university, would own the plant). Residents of Burleith, Foxhall Terrace, Georgetown, and other neighborhoods were outraged that the university would try to build a commercial power plant 100 yards from their homes. They fought back savagely. A handful of lawsuits, a half-dozen environmental studies, dozens of hearings, and several years later, the neighbors won, persuading the D.C. Council to block the plant’s construction. By the time the cogenerator project finally died in November 1993, Georgetown’s town-gown relationship had shattered.
And now the cogenerator fight has spawned a bastard child: the Canal Road dispute.
The fight over Canal Road actually began in 1983, years before the cogen plant was a twinkle in Georgetown’s eye. According to the Washington Post, the Rev. William L. George, a university lobbyist, befriended Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.) when Oberstar’s wife was receiving treatment for cancer at Georetown’s medical center. Four years later, Oberstar did the 206-year-old university a favor: He tacked $6.4 million for the Canal Road construction onto a DOT “demonstration projects” bill.
The university said it needed the federal money to build a bigger, safer campus entrance. Its main portal sits on Prospect Street, and campus traffic snarls the narrow and crowded streets of Georgetown. Canal Road, by contrast, is a broad, four-lane artery that feeds into Key Bridge, M Street, and MacArthur Boulevard. Bureaucratic snafus caused the money to languish unused until December 1991, when FHA finally began to study how to spend it. In February 1993, FHA presented four Canal Road schemes to the public: Do nothing; widen the road and add traffic lights; build an underpass; or build an overpass. Common sense ruled out the underpass and overpass, which were estimated to cost $20.2 million and $11.3 million, respectively. Georgetown strongly opposed the “no-build alternative” and endorsed the second option, asserting that the road expansion would solve the neighborhood’s traffic problems.
“The Canal Road entrance must be improved to…reduce or eliminate traffic jams that occur in that community every weekday evening and improve the ability of police and fire vehicles to more quickly respond to emergency situations,” says Georgetown’s James Wagner, vice president for administrative services.
But in the wake of the cogenerator fiasco, most nearby residents aren’t buying the notion that the university has suddenly become a good neighbor. Angry homeowners—folks from the same Burleith, Foxhall, Glover Park, Hillandale, and Palisades neighborhoods that hated the cogenerator—are protesting the Canal Road expansion. The very activists who commanded the anti-cogen forces—Westy Byrd, Virginia Mead, Bob Mead, Thomas Stauffer, and Guy Gwynne—are spearheading the Canal Road opposition.
It’s easy to tar the opponents as NIMBY whiners who hate anything the university suggests. “If GU says it’s white, then [opponents] say it’s black,” says one resident who supports the road expansion.
But it’s even easier to see why the neighbors distrust the university. The project, after all, is pure pork, a gift of U.S. tax money solely to benefit a private university. (At last month’s FHA meeting, opponents asked the feds to give all the remaining Canal Road money—about $5.6 million—to the District government so that the entire city can benefit from it.)
And the opponents accuse the university of practicing the same types of deceptive strategies that it used during the power plant fight. In 1993, for example, the university and Dominion downplayed the size of the cogenerator, calling the 56-megawatt commercial plant a mere “addition” to the current plant; this time, the university is selling the project as a simple stoplight change, when it would actually require expanding Canal Road to a mammoth eight lanes near the entrance.
Last time around, the university downplayed the harms and exaggerated the benefits of the plant. This time, the opponents say, the school and FHA have overlooked the danger and cost of altering the utility and water systems under Canal Road. And the opponents accuse FHA and the university of misrepresenting the benefits of the project. They say the traffic study commissioned by FHA is “riddled with omissions and errors,” and assert that the road expansion won’t ease Georgetown traffic at all.
(Residents have even filed a complaint with DOT’s Inspector General to investigate the “efforts by the contractor and university to defraud the public just like was done in the cogenerator,” says Canal Road foe Stauffer. On top of the “irregular” procedures behind the crafting of the study, residents allege that the document was “systematically” manipulated and influenced by “political interference traceable to the White House.”)
Most of all, opponents doubt that the university would go to this much trouble and spend this many tax dollars just to allow several dozen cars to make left-hand turns during rush hour.
Instead, the opponents intimate, university officials are deliberately misleading them—again. The university’s 1990 “campus plan”—which outlined the school’s development over the next 20 years—included plans for almost 4 million square feet of new buildings. Canal Road, opponents say, is the first step toward uncontrolled development of their quiet neighborhood.
“It is hard for me to believe that a 3.8-million-square-foot development will not result in any extra cars or people,” says ANC Commissioner Byrd, who has been as vocal about the evils of Canal Road as she was about the cogenerator. By comparison, she says, “The Pentagon is 3.75 million square feet designed to accommodate 23,000 employees.”
“[Building a better entrance] is our motivation, period,” counters Linda Greenan, assistant to the university president for community relations. “It is not to promote the development of our campus plan. And that’s the truth.” Greenan, a former staffer of Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, was hired a year ago to improve the university’s standing with neighbors in the aftermath of cogen.
The university asserts that it won’t have the resources “for many years” to complete construction of its 1990 campus plan, and claims that the new buildings will not bring in additional cars or people but only provide “academic elbow room.” In the first five years of the plan, the university has added “only 260,456 gross square feet,” GU officials report.
But even FHA officials are wondering why the university wants to spend millions in federal money for such minor construction. “We may have to get GU to really tell us why this entrance is needed,” an FHA official wrote in a December 1993 report. “As written now we have not really shown what is so bad about the current situation—I can’t believe GU is doing this just because they are really that concerned about the streets to the east.”
But not everyone is skeptical of the school’s plans. Georgetowners who live near the Prospect Street entrance support the construction. Grace Bateman, who was also the leading community defender of the cogen erator, says the project is long overdue. And Councilmember Evans opposed the power plant, but says the Canal Road expansion would be a boon to the neighborhood. The Canal Road project is “not even in the same ballgame as the cogenerator,” he insists.
The Canal Road project resembles the cogenerator in another way: It must navigate the twisty pathways of the federal and local bureaucracy before it can be built. The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) holds a hearing on the project Nov. 2. If the NCPC gives the project the green light, the secretaries of Transportation and of the Interior will have to sign off on it, as will the Commission of Fine Arts. And to iron out some of the land-use snarls of the project, FHA may also have to buy a 2.5-acre tract of land that abuts much of the proposed entrance. (Opponents, unsurprisingly, say such a purchase would be an illegal use of federal funds.)
And, like the cogenerator fight, the Canal Road dispute promises to drag on for years—no matter what happens. The opponents promise to fight until they block the road construction. Georgetown University’s Greenan vows: “We’re in it for the long haul.”