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Voices for AU

This editorial was published in the Northwest Current newspaper on May 4th, 2011.

American University is neighborhood asset


Matthew Frumin

My wife works for an organization – the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute – that provides classes to more than 600 area seniors hosted by American University. Our kids learned to swim in American University’s pool, and our son worked as a lifeguard there. We run on the university’s track. We love to visit the Katzen Arts Center. Our younger daughter’s dance recitals took place at the Greenberg Theatre. Our two older children’s high school graduations were at Bender Arena. We listen to its public radio station, WAMU.

The idea, inherent in much of the discussion around American University’s campus plan, that the university is a net negative presence in our community strikes me as fundamentally inaccurate. Indeed, the university arrived in 1893 before all but a handful of the current homes in the area were built. Our community and the university have evolved together for a century, and that has been good for both.

Today, American is an institution on the rise. Its ranking as an undergraduate university is on a path of steady improvement. In the meantime, it is making its mark in numerous areas, including such things as the hours devoted by students to community service, political engagement of its students and number of graduates who go on to the Peace Corps.

As an interested member of the community and an advisory neighborhood commissioner, I have attended dozens of meetings on the campus plan over the last 18 months. The plan is far from perfect, and there are important issues that still have to be resolved (including maintaining enforceable enrollment caps), but fundamentally, the plan promises to deliver significant benefits to the community and to the university.

The two biggest areas of controversy relate to the proposals to move the law school to the Tenley Campus and to put dorms on the parking lot on the southeast side of Ward Circle.

The Tenley Campus neighbors are legitimately concerned about traffic and parking in the wake of the proposed much heavier use of that site. They have been at odds with the university for a generation about the use of the site and seek stability and a respite. These concerns can and should be addressed. If they are, then moving the law school to the Tenley Campus, a block from the Metro, could deliver benefits for the city and community, promoting transit-oriented development and contributing to enlivening the Wisconsin Avenue corridor.

Neighbors of the Nebraska lot, the giant asphalt parking area on the southeast side of Ward Circle, have fought the idea of dorms on that site since they were first proposed. The university’s most acute need, however, is to provide new dorm space, and its largest area available for such dorms is the parking lot.

Opponents point to other places on the main campus where dorms could go. In one case, the university now proposes to put a dorm on the opponents’ recommended site. Other suggested sites, however, are either not viable alternatives or would result in opposition from different neighbors. 

In the meantime, opponents accuse the university of recalcitrance for refusing to abandon the idea of placing dorms on the parking lot, even as university officials have come forward with multiple iterations to address the last round of professed concerns (steadily reducing the number of beds proposed for the site). The neighbors have held fast to their insistence that no dorms be put there. For the vast majority of the extended discussion, neither side has moved off of its fundamental position, though American has made modifications to the details of its proposal.

Still, that leaves decision makers to grapple with the basic question: Can dorms reasonably be accommodated on the Nebraska lot? While I understand the fears of the nearby neighbors, it certainly does seem that a site of that size, right next to the main campus and currently wasted, from a land-use perspective, on surface parking, could accommodate dorms.

In its latest report, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3D showed some willingness to consider inclusion of dorms on the parking lot. Perhaps that will mark a change of approach, and the discussion will move from whether to include dorms on that site to how they can be placed and buffered to avoid an undue adverse impact on the neighbors.

We are not far from a campus plan that could be good for the community and the university. Hopefully, going forward, the stakeholders will work together constructively so that we can get there.

Matthew Frumin is a member of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3E.