American University plans new on-campus science building

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The proposed Hall of Science, shown from the northeast, would be located next to the aging Beeghly Chemistry Hall. (rendering courtesy of American University)

American University plans to construct a new three-story science building on its main campus to replace aging facilities and accommodate rising enrollment in the sciences — a proposal that has sparked contention among community leaders.

The school filed with the Zoning Commission in late August to build the facility in a current parking lot on the western side of campus, about 500 feet away from private homes on University Avenue NW. The new Hall of Science would include laboratories, classrooms and a vivarium, as well as faculty offices for the school’s chemistry, biology, environmental science and psychology departments.

Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3D voted 5-3 on Sept. 6 to support the proposal, with dissenters arguing that the commission should have debated the application for at least another month to see if community objections emerge.

“At this time, the letter is premature,” said commission member Alma Gates before voting in opposition. Pointing to the fact that the commission had until Nov. 13 to file its opinion, she said, “ANC 3D is basing its report on a preliminary application. So preliminary, in fact, that the application for the amendment for the campus plan does not even have a case number to identify it.”

(ANC 3D includes Foxhall, the Palisades, Spring Valley and Wesley Heights, as well as the American University main campus.)

Several residents, including former ANC 3D chair Tom Smith, also opposed taking action so early. Commissioners who supported taking swift action, less than two weeks after the application was filed, said enough homework had already been done on the matter.

“I’ve been engaged in this issue for six months, pretty effectively,” said commissioner Troy Kravitz. “Several of us in the commission feel like we are adequately prepared and informed right now to make a decision.”

The new building would sit next to Beeghly Chemistry Hall, built in 1965. In 2011, the university outlined in its campus plan that it would renovate and expand Beeghly Hall; it now seeks to amend that document in order to build a new facility.

“The impetus behind the need for a new, consolidated science building is the large growth of student interest in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, as well as the aging science facilities that the University currently utilizes,” according to the school’s zoning application.

At ANC 3D’s Sept. 6 meeting, the University’s Linda Argo explained that while the student population is not expected to increase, the same number of students are increasingly gravitating to the sciences, sometimes doubling public policy and science degrees, for example.

Some residents at the meeting had concerns over lights from the campus pouring into the residential community. University officials said that the windows of classrooms will face the campus, and that they plan on mitigating any light impacts with automatic shades.

Truck traffic concerns were also raised, with one resident saying that after the lengthy construction of East Campus, the neighborhood does not want an increase in truck traffic.

Argo said that this project would be “nowhere near the scale of construction that occurred at East Campus,” which included building three residence halls along with two other buildings.

Still, those who wanted ANC 3D to delay its vote said the community needed more time to flesh out its arguments. The university says in its zoning application that it held “formal and informal meetings” with neighborhood representatives once in April and twice in August.

Ahead of the ANC’s Sept. 6 meeting, Smith, the former chair of the commission, wrote to commissioner Kravitz.

“I don’t recall the ANC ever moving so quickly on a zoning application,” he wrote to Kravitz, according to a copy he emailed to The Current, “let alone one in which neighbors living closest to the site have expressed objections that could be mitigated or eliminated altogether with more time for discussion with the applicant.”

ANC 3D has historically clashed with American University over its development and enrollment. However, several recently elected commissioners — including Kravitz, who defeated long-serving Smith in a hotly contested race last November — have prioritized changing the commission’s tone in such issues.