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Members of the citizens groups fighting against campus plans recently submitted by Georgetown and American Universities were none too happy that WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi included only university spokespeople in a Monday program on the subject. Before it started, the program’s web page gathered more comments than probably any in WAMU’s history, and the station was deluged with calls.
Perhaps to compensate, Nnamdi took the unusual step of taking not one, but two calls from Lenore Rubino, president of the Burleith Citizens Association and a passionate advocate against Georgetown’s plan to enroll more graduate students. Her primary argument has been that more students living off campus, incentivizing property owners to rent rather than sell homes to upstanding nuclear families, destabilizes the housing stock. After doing a house-by-house inventory of the neighborhood, she even has a statistic: 48 percent of the approximately 500 homes within the neighborhood’s boundaries are rentals, and “a majority” are occupied by students, which makes for at least 100 potential animal houses.
“We find many instances where the students are in peril, where we find them drunk, passed out on the streets,” Rubino said. “There are huge parties that even the students can’t control. There’s 50, 60 people. These are small row houses. Next door, you have have seniors. You have babies.”
According to the Office of Tax and Revenue, 62 percent of residential properties citywide claim the homestead tax exemption—meaning that the owner uses the house as his or her primary residence—which means about 38 percent are likely rented out. That’s not too much less than 48 percent, for an area in such close proximity to a major educational and research institution. Rents aren’t exactly cheap in Burleith, either; the typical starving graduate student will look for housing further afield—which they wouldn’t have had to do if neighbors had allowed them to build on the 1789 block, just steps from the campus wall.
Rubino withheld her more detailed statistics, saying they’re keeping some things in reserve for the Zoning Commission hearing set for April 14th. After a sustained fundraising campaign, BCA and the Citizens Association of Georgetown will still be represented on a pro bono basis by lawyer Richard Hines.
Of course, further north in Tenleytown, neighbors are still protesting American University’s plans to build 770 units of housing on a Nebraska Avenue parking lot. That’s already been downsized from more than 1,000, and according to vice president for facilities and real estate Jorge Abud, they’ve also responded to neighborhood concerns by orienting the buildings inward and adding landscape features that will “buffer the community from views and potential noise from the site.”
In other words, they’re making the new east campus both less dense and less friendly to the streets around it, to assuage the concerns of those who would rather not see it there at all. Meanwhile, the Tenley Campus Neighbors Association has asked AU to sign a conservation easement that would preserve large swaths of green space on the west campus, where a new law school is proposed. Abud pointed out that the best way to allow for the preservation of green space is to build higher.
“There’s a tradeoff when you’re doing land planning in height of buildings versus how much land you take up,” he said. “And obviously, if we built all two, three-story buildings, we’d be doing away with a lot more green space. So it is part of our sensitivity to sustainability that we look at that delicate balance between the height of a building…and how much land we take up in the process.”
Never underestimate the ability of those who oppose density to contradict themselves.