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GU Dorm Location Sparks Design Board Concern

By Brady HoltCurrent Staff Writer

A proposed new Georgetown University dormitory would help the school fulfill its pledge to begin housing more of its undergraduates on campus soon.

Despite community support, the Old Georgetown Board design review panel has reservations about the plan. At their meeting last Wednesday, board members turned down the proposal pending additional information, worrying about the dorm’s impact on a rare piece of campus green space and on the Georgetown Visitation cemetery.

The planned dorm would house 250 students in seven stories of residential space above one level of classrooms and lounges. It would be located across from the Reiss Science Building near the eastern boundary of the campus, down the hill from the Georgetown Visitation campus.

Building additional on-campus housing was a key promise in the university’s campus plan, which school officials worked out in consultation with community members last year following an earlier contentious process. The university has little open space but plans to add 450 total on-campus beds in the near future, primarily at this site and in an expanded Leavey Center.

The university hopes to break ground on this dorm project in spring 2014, with construction lasting 14 months.

The Old Georgetown Board, part of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, has authority over building projects in the neighborhood because Georgetown is a federally protected historic district. Thomas Luebke, secretary to the Fine Arts Commission, said in an interview that before board members will consider signing off on the current proposed location, they want information on alternative sites the university considered and rejected.

“They are concerned about, for starters, the planning that went into locating this dorm in the one little patch of green on the campus,” said Luebke. “They’re obviously sympathetic to the needs of the university to try to limit off-campus housing, but they weren’t satisfied this is the only choice.”

While board members didn’t comment on the architecture of the planned building — a roughly triangular high-rise with salt-and-pepper brick trim — they said it fits very tightly into its narrow site, Luebke said.

Robin Morey, the university’s vice president for planning and facilities management, said in an interview yesterday that he’s confident the board will be more supportive once the school explains its needs and long-term plans.

The university has identified seven future development sites — moving toward a long-term goal of housing 90 percent of its undergraduates on campus, he said. But the others would be harder to develop quickly, requiring demolition of existing buildings and displacing other functions.

Furthermore, the university is trying to add more density to this section of campus to make for a more vibrant “living-learning environment” that will entice students to reside on campus rather than in the community, Morey said. That makes this “Northeast Triangle” site the best candidate for the time being.

“We will also need additional sites to reach the total capacity. So it’s not like, which sites will we do, but which sites we will do first,” he said.

The Georgetown advisory neighborhood commission had no objections to the dorm’s proposed location at its meeting last Monday. Its two student members, however, questioned the building’s design, as have other students.

“This is one of those last opportunities the campus has to make a new building,” commissioner Peter Prindiville said at the meeting. “The campus needs to represent Georgetown’s heritage and represent the university as well.”

Commissioner Craig Cassey added that creating an undesirable dorm — or one that’s no longer appealing in 30 years — would undermine efforts to encourage students to live on campus.

The university will hold meetings with students, faculty and staff next week regarding the building’s design. The school will also develop and present alternative dorm designs that will be “entirely different architecturally,” with “more traditional” cues, said Morey, allowing stakeholders to offer recommendations.

Morey said there’s “a possibility” of delays resulting from a design revision but that “this has not set us back” yet.

Jeff Jones, a neighborhood commissioner who represents many homes near the university campus, said in an interview that his priorities are to “minimize the impact on the adjacent community and … minimize to the impact on the historic character of the university.” New on-campus housing achieves this in general, and Jones said he trusts the Old Georgetown Board’s judgment on the latter.

“It’s not that they said the green space is off-limits. It’s, ‘Don’t use the green space if you don’t have to.’ I can support that,” said Jones.

The university will present updates to the Old Georgetown Board at its September meeting.

This article appears in the July 10 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.