Are student-dominated neighborhood commission districts a way of empowering D.C.’s college students—or a way of ghettoizing them?

The question arises as the District, having tweaked its city council ward boundaries following the 2010 census, prepares to adjust its Advisory Neighborhood Commission districts, too. And, just as they are on issues unrelated to the decennial population survey, neighborhoods adjacent to campuses are grappling with tension between students and neighbors.

The latest flare-up comes in the tony part of town abutting American University. Ward 3 Redistricting Task Force Chair Jeffrey Kraskin and ANC 3D Chairman Tom Smith have floated a plan for ANC 3D that would create a student-only ANC Single Member District within 3D, with spillover going into a mixed district, reports AU’s student newspaper, the Eagle:

The plan would group all of AU except for Letts, Clark and Roper Halls into ANC 3D 07, the district seat currently held by student Deon Jones.

Letts, Clark and Roper Halls would fall with Spring Valley neighborhood under ANC 3D 02, currently headed by ANC 3D Chairman Tom Smith.

Taskforce Chair Dr. Jeffrey Kraskin said all of AU would ideally fall into one district, but AU’s resident hall population is over the 2,000-person cap per district.

“It has to be done; we have to break it apart,” Kraskin said.

The Eagle finds a bit of man-on-the-street support for saturating one ANC with university representation. (One student is quoted as saying, “We’re trying to unite the campus community with the community at large, and the best way to do this is to have a guaranteed student seat.”)

But on Greater Greater Washington, Evan Brown and Matt Lien, both AU students, write that the gerrymandering “blatantly under-represents and marginalizes the American University student population for solely political reasons.” Just as GOP-dominated Southern legislatures have maximized Republican Congressional prospects by creating minority-dominated districts that would presumably concentrate the Democratic vote, they worry, concentrating students into just one of an ANC’s districts would dilute their impact when the whole body votes.

Similarly, back in August, the Georgetown ANC 2E voted to create a second SMD just for Georgetown students. Then, ANC 2E 04 chair Jake Sticka, a sophomore at Georgetown, argued against student-only districts, writing that it “gerrymanders” them out of having a voice.

The upside of student-only ANCs is that students are essentially guaranteed a voice on the commission; surely, a student body is most likely to elect a peer as its representative. But such a policy would give students only as many voices as they have districts; in the case of Kraskin and Smith’s proposal for AU, that’s one voice. Were the campus split into multiple SMDs, several students could, theoretically, be elected to the ANC.

And in the future, there’s one very large thing at the mercy of ANC 3D’s approval: AU’s campus plan. The plan proposes some serious changes, like turning a parking lot on Nebraska Avenue NW into a mixed-use development, and has been met with opposition from nearby, non-student residents in ANC3D. For neighbors wary of the university’s changes, the potential for multiple AU-based commissioners—or a swath of commissioners whose constituents include students—probably isn’t very appealing.

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