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The death knell of the Corcoran Gallery of Art last month elicited a dirge from the sages of the D.C. art world, whose mournfulness overshadowed any sense of closure that might have come from the final breath of an institution long known to be suffering. “The demise of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design as we know it arrived as a wrenching shock,” wrote Kriston Capps in this paper. “This failure will be its final one.” The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott lamented, “This is not a swallowing of the Corcoran—this is the end of the Corcoran and its final dismemberment.”

If the plan is approved next month, the parties doing the swallowing include the National Gallery, which will absorb much of the museum’s collection and distribute much of the rest to other institutions. Meanwhile, George Washington University will be the proud new owner of the 135,000-square-foot Corcoran building, together with its college and the hefty cost of renovating it, which will run at least in the tens of millions of dollars.

It’s the latest step in a heady expansion for the university that’s seen it become one of the largest real estate owners and landlords in the city. Expansion, of course, is hardly unusual these days for urban universities that have been previously constrained by the dense cities around them: Columbia University is biting a major chunk out of Harlem, Georgetown recently opened a School of Continuing Studies downtown, and New York University now has an outpost in Abu Dhabi. But GW’s growth stands apart for its motivation, which lies largely in the realm of finance, rather than just academics. With real estate prices exploding in D.C., it’s a logical strategy, if not always a popular one with neighbors.

GW is often cited as the second-largest landowner in the city, behind the federal government. (The Office of Tax and Revenue was unable to confirm this.) According to GW’s financial reports, the school’s real estate investment has tripled in the past decade, growing to $813 million last year. Nearly half of GW’s total investment is in real estate, versus an average of around 7 percent for colleges across the country, the GW Hatchet has reported. (GW will soon be expanding further, if not on land it owns, with a presence at the coming redevelopment of the Walter Reed campus along Georgia Avenue NW, and has stated interest in opening facilities at the St. Elizabeths development near Congress Heights.)

The school’s success in real estate investment sets it apart from, say, Howard University. Howard has long owned a significant amount of land around its campus, much of which has languished as surface parking lots. The school had plans for a big mixed-use development to boost its bottom line, but the so-called Howard Town Center has been put on hold following the collapse of Howard’s agreement with the developer and a subsequent lawsuit, leaving the university empty-handed for the time being.

GW, by contrast, has brought in big bucks with its new properties. Take the project known as Square 54, on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, which the university has leased to developer Boston Properties on a 60-year ground lease. The $360 million development now includes plenty of amenities for GW students—the high-end Residences at The Avenue, where dozens of students (or rather, their parents) shell out nearly $4,000 a month for luxury off-campus living; a Whole Foods supermarket; and several casual and not-so-casual eateries—as well as a Citibank and 400,000 square feet of offices. Boston Properties pays GW about $9 million per year for the site, money university officials have said they use to help keep tuition down—even if tuition, at $47,343 before room and board, is among the highest in the country—and fund other expansion projects, like a science and engineering hall that’s expected to open later this year.

According to GW’s latest financial report, in 2013 the university earned $78 million in property rents and appreciation. That’s more than three times the $22 million the university gained in contributions to its endowment.

“The university has long used income from investment properties as a source of nonenrollment driven revenue to fund its academic mission,” says GW spokeswoman Maralee Csellar in an email. (She declined a request for an interview with a university official responsible for real estate.) “The return from these investments, many of which are situated along Pennsylvania Avenue, helps to defray the costs of academic programs, facilities, student financial aid, and other expenses necessary to operate a world-class university.”

But some neighbors and alumni question the motivations and the methods of the real estate expansion. Asher Corson is both a neighbor and an alumnus—he graduated from GW in 2009 and is already the longest-serving member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission for Foggy Bottom and the West End, which he previously chaired—and he sees the university’s real estate ventures as an attempt to make up for limited financial support from alumni. The school’s alumni giving rate, according to the latest annual college rankings from U.S. News and World Report, is just 9 percent, putting it in 147th place among national universities. (Top-ranked Princeton’s rate is 62 percent; local rival Georgetown’s is 27 percent. But a record-setting $80 million donation earlier this month ought to help make up for spotty giving in the past.)

To Corson and other neighbors, the use of valuable campus space for high-end office buildings and other nonacademic functions is questionable, particularly when students sometimes need to travel to Metro Center and elsewhere for classes—although Csellar points out that the location of the museum studies program at Metro Center places it close to the Smithsonian museums.

“As a neighbor and former student, I don’t think the city and the students are well served by using their extremely limited space for commercial use,” says Corson. “It raises the question of whether their priorities are academic or real estate development.”

The university’s expansion was codified in a 20-year campus plan, approved by the Zoning Commission in 2007, that critics gripe will add more than an Empire State Building’s worth of square footage to the university. Neighbors also objected to the fact that campus plan was undertaken before the previous campus plan had concluded—a move Csellar says was prompted by the relocation of the GW Hospital.

“GWU’s history is that they asked for the current campus plan years before the old agreed-upon plan was set to expire and they asked for it in the form of [planned units developments] which allow greater density in exchange for supposed neighborhood amenities,” says Joy Howell, who served as president of the Foggy Bottom Association during the campus plan battle, in an email. “Many feel the neighborhood got very little for the incredible density and it makes it hard to share this precious Foggy Bottom area in peace.”

Howell adds, “Ultimately if the city won’t enforce on behalf of the residents then the chance of these agreements having teeth will be about like when the Indians thought they could stop westward white expansion.”

Clearly, neighbors are riled up about GW’s growth—even when it comes to matters as seemingly innocuous as alleys. The city allowed GW to close one public alley and reconfigure another in order to undertake development projects, without asking for any compensation from the university. Neighborhood activists, who’d hoped for the university to chip in at least a new Foggy Bottom Metro entrance in exchange for the alley land valued in the millions of dollars, charged the D.C. Council with a giveaway of valuable public land.

Csellar says there was nothing untoward in the alley agreements, which “applied the same standards as those applied to other landowners in the District of Columbia.” She also notes that the university’s classroom locations in Arlington, Alexandria, and Metro Center don’t conflict with the latest campus plan, which is designed to protect the Foggy Bottom/West End area.

Nor does the Corcoran. Corson sees GW’s expansion to the Corcoran as a violation of university officials’ pledge during the campus plan process to build “up, not out,” and says, “If GW had the academic space it needed, it wouldn’t have had to buy the Corcoran.” But maybe, more than anything, it’s a reflection of the university’s recognition that in boom times for D.C. real estate, new property—even property with a troubled history and a need for a facelift—is almost always a good investment.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Due to a reporting error, the article originally misspelled one instance of Asher Corson’s last name.