Georgetown Day pledges steep traffic reduction for Tenley campus consolidation

Georgetown Day's planned lower/middle school would be located at 42nd and Davenport streets NW. (rendering courtesy of Georgetown Day School)

Georgetown Day School’s plans to expand its Tenleytown campus won a key endorsement last week, as the local advisory neighborhood commission signed off on a compromise regarding the school’s anticipated traffic volume.

The decision by ANC 3E (Friendship Heights, Tenleytown) follows months of sometimes contentious debate about Georgetown Day’s plans for 4203 Davenport St. NW, the site of a former Safeway next door to the GDS high school campus. The school purchased the property in 2014 to create a unified campus, with the intention of relocating its lower/middle school from the Palisades to the old Safeway site.

According to ANC 3E chair Jon Bender, Georgetown Day’s original proposal included 864 predicted vehicle trips to the school during the peak morning rush hour, which the commission said was not acceptable. School officials came back with a promise of no more than 595 permitted trips during any single morning hour, which commissioners unanimously accepted. Already, with only the high school on Davenport Street, Georgetown Day sees morning traffic counts of 483 — allowing few extra trips to accommodate more than twice the number of students.

Head of school Russell Shaw said that the new, legally binding traffic agreement will necessitate a “change of culture” for the Georgetown Day community, requiring the use of car pools, public transportation and school buses. Now most lower and middle school students arrive in ones and twos, in cars driven by their parents.

“We have worked hard to respond to community issues,” Shaw said. The project will now require approval from the Board of Zoning Adjustment, which has a hearing scheduled for today.

Georgetown Day plans to build its new lower and middle school at the site of the now-closed Safeway store. (Brian Kapur/Current file photo)

Georgetown Day had also previously responded to community complaints by reducing the size of its planned lower/middle school building and shifting it farther from 43rd Street NW homes.

“There is no substantial opposition to the [proposed] building and grounds,” Aidan Jones, who lives near the school, said in an interview. “The problem is the traffic.”

Jones was among the neighbors at the meeting who expressed skepticism that the traffic commitments could be successfully monitored and enforced. “If the cap is not met, what are the consequences for GDS?” he asked.

Alison Prince, the school’s land-use attorney, said that D.C. zoning administrator Matt LeGrant will have the authority to step in and enforce the agreement. “He can fine us, he can revoke our certificate of occupancy, he can give us a time frame to rectify a violation,” Prince said.

Furthermore, under the school’s memorandum of understanding with ANC 3E, Georgetown Day must demonstrate traffic compliance in order to move forward with a desired enrollment increase. Today, the lower/middle school serves 575 students at its MacArthur Boulevard NW location, while the Tenleytown high school has 500 students. Georgetown Day hopes ultimately to serve 1,200 students at the unified Tenley campus, an increase of 125.

The agreement also states that students and parents who don’t “comply with the carpooling, parking, busing and drop-off requirements shall be subject to an escalating set of penalties, leading ultimately to student expulsion after the sixth offense.”

Georgetown Day has also pledged to allow nearby residents to use the school playground, athletic fields and classrooms when the facilities are not in use by the school.

Prince said the school recognizes that some in the neighborhood are uncertain of its good faith. “You’ve told us — we’ve got a credibility problem with the community,” she said.

The agreement also establishes an afternoon traffic maximum — 465 vehicle trips during the afternoon peak hour — but this figure attracted little debate.

“The afternoon is less of an issue, because of staggered dismissals and after-school activities,” ANC 3E member Greg Ehrhardt said in an interview. “But in the morning everyone gets to school at the same time.”

John Kelly, a resident of the neighborhood for 40 years, was out for a walk near the school last Tuesday. He said that Georgetown Day School has generally been a good neighbor in the past.

“They talk to people when there’s a problem, and the school takes appropriate action,” Kelly said. “A tree on the school property fell down and hit my daughter’s house. The school paid for the repairs.”

But Kelly still worries about doubling the number of students arriving in a neighborhood with narrow streets and heavy traffic.

“River Road is very busy during rush hour,” he said. “People will turn off River Road into the neighborhood to bypass the congestion. People driving through the neighborhood don’t stop at stop signs or slow down. It’s going to get worse.”

Georgetown Day spokesperson Alison Grasheim told The Current this week that plans are on track to break ground for the new lower/middle school in summer 2018, allowing it to open for the 2020-21 school year.