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On February 9, the Zoning Commission will rule on where, how, and how much Georgetown University will be able to grow over the next ten years. It’s been an arduous process, with citizens groups squaring off against University officials for well over a year now, and enough filings to make the Encyclopedia Britannica look like pulp fiction.

Through all of it, though D.C. has an interest in keeping Georgetown’s operations local, the city hasn’t been much of an ally. Most problematically for Georgetown, the Office of Planning requested that it be required to house 100 percent of its undergraduate population by 2016, which by then will be capped at 6,652 traditional students. The university currently has 5,053 beds on campus, so that’s a lot of housing to build over the next ten years.

Why did the city take such a hard line? Councilmember Tommy Wells, in speaking to a student group Monday night, had one theory:

I asked the person who’s head of the Office of Planning, why did you say Georgetown needs to do this—this isn’t realistic, no other universities are being asked to do this in terms of the number of students to be housed on campus and she essentially said, we just don’t like their attitude. And I said, well you don’t get to have that opinion, this is about planning. You can’t change based on attitude.

Did Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning really say that? 

Not in so many words, she tells me. But overall, Georgetown’s approach does add up to something of an attitude problem: In response to neighborhood concerns about more students living in off-campus rentals, “they’ve essentially said, they’re Georgetown University and the benefits of their presence are obvious,” Tregoning says.

The way the zoning regulations read now, it’s the neighbors who determine what is and isn’t allowed. “They have to demonstrate that they’re not doing something that is objectionable to neighboring property owners,” Tregoning said. “It’s their burden to show that they met the requirement, and in our opinion they had failed to meet the requirement.” *

I’ve been sympathetic to the university because even when it did attempt to build off-campus housing—-even for less-rowdy graduate students—-the neighbors objected, and the plan got killed. Neighbors even proposed limiting the amount of property Georgetown could own in the 20007 zip code, so the university couldn’t own more student housing if it wanted to. That makes the new housing requirement difficult: Columbia University in Manhattan, for example, can house 100 percent of undergraduates because it owns large apartment buildings in Morningside Heights, as well as 20-story dorms on campus.

But Tregoning thinks Georgetown could house more students within its walls too, if it tried hard enough. “When you’re thinking about doing your 10-year campus plan, those are the things that you would want to tee up ahead of time,” she says.

On the one hand, I think students should be allowed to live wherever they can afford to live—-they’re people too. And it’s understandable for the university to want to preserve on-campus space for academic and research buildings, which are harder to locate in surrounding neighborhoods. On the other, it’s fair to encourage Georgetown to more densely populate its own campus, just as D.C. is asking of developments around the city, and the university might magically come up with more space where before it seemed like too much trouble to build.

To help Georgetown along, though, they ought to be allowed to build taller dorms than might otherwise be allowed—-there’s unlimited space in the sky.

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* CORRECTION, 10:43 p.m. – Revised to reflect the fact that Georgetown has, in fact, stayed under its 2000 enrollment cap of 6,016 undergraduate students.