Out of all the campus plans working their way towards the Zoning Commission this year, the University of the District of Columbia’s is somewhat unique: None of the others are attempting to transform themselves into something entirely different. With this year’s launch of the Community College of the District of Columbia—which will accommodate many of the city’s non-traditional and part-time students—UDC wants to break free of its commuter-school image and become a bona fide residential campus.
To do that, UDC needs two things: A fancy student center where kids can hang out during the day, and dormitories, which it’s never had before (the University currently leases about 100 units, primarily for athletes, at an apartment building across Connecticut Avenue). Nice facilities are essential to attract the caliber of students the University will need to raise its academic standing, UDC officials argued at an ANC 3F meeting on the subject last night—and it worked, sort of, with George Washington.
At the meeting, there seemed to be little concern about the new student center, which will activate a huge dead plaza in front of drab, bunker-like buildings (inspiringly named “38” and “39.”) Building two new residence halls for 600 students on the southwest corner of the campus, however, puts residents on edge—primarily because the campus plan doesn’t call for increasing the current footprint of some 800 parking spaces, at the Office of Planning’s behest. Won’t all those students want to bring their cars?
The graying residents of Tenleytown seemed certain that they would, despite UDC officials’ protestations to the contrary.
“I think we all know from our own days in college that that’s not true,” argued ANC commissioner Karen Perry.
“Having a car is like moving away from your parents,” another audience member insisted. “Come on, it’s lifestyle!”
So, this is the problem. UDC’s grumpy neighbors are operating on memories of a time where a personal vehicle equaled freedom, perhaps in places where colleges were able to provide ample space for parking. That’s just not necessarily the case anymore: Students are recognizing that owning a car is more hassle than it’s worth, not to mention more expensive, in a city where parking tickets are handed out like candy and public transit is good enough to get you most of the places you need to go. Besides, allowing more students to live on campus would seem to imply that fewer of them need to commute. And let’s also remember that the average UDC student is a lot poorer than the average Georgetown or GW student, meaning that going without a car (or keeping it at their parents’ home, since most will come from the District) is a much more attractive option.
It’s also true, though, that the campus plan envisions an enrollment increase from 3,200 students to 10,000 students in 2020, which is a lot (although it’s worth remembering that the student body was 14,000 in 1980). And they can’t just count on all those students not to bring their cars of their own volition. To that end, UDC proposes to actively discourage personal vehicles through “dynamic pricing” of parking (making the University-owned parking facilities more expensive during periods of high usage) and “aggressively marketing” Zipcars, as well as exploring the use of transit benefits for both students and staff. Plus, a Circulator route down Connecticut Avenue to Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights and out to Brookland is planned for the next phase of the system’s expansion.
The final, unspoken element is something more intangible: Creating a culture of non-car-ownership. I went to school in Manhattan where no parking was provided for students and people would look at you strangely if owned a car. The District isn’t that far away from having similar convenience (though allowing more amenities like cool bars and coffeeshops into Tenleytown would lessen the appeal of vehicles as well).
The bottom line is, if you make owning and parking really difficult, and make taking transit really easy, students aren’t that dumb—they’ll do what’s best for them, with a little nudge.