Viewpoint: American University must live up to its commitments

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American University's East Campus project was a source of community discord. (Brian Kapur/The Current/April 2016)

By Spring Valley-Wesley Heights Citizens Association officers and other community members

After a dispute over a 10 percent spike in American University’s undergraduate enrollment that violated its campus plan agreement with the D.C. Zoning Commission, the university entered into a dialogue last fall with the Spring Valley-Wesley Heights Citizens Association and then-Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3D chair Tom Smith. Left unchecked, AU undergraduate student enrollment was on track to increase by 27 percent through the life of the current campus plan, which extends to May 2022.

This dialogue resulted in a formal agreement that included the establishment of a Neighborhood Collaborative to improve communications between AU and its neighbors. After months of opposing this agreement, ANC commissioners Jonathan McHugh and Troy Kravitz finally embraced this new collaborative approach in their July 12 Viewpoint. Both commissioners are new to the campus planning process, having never engaged with AU prior to being elected to their respective ANCs.

In trying to assert that this collaborative approach is the result of “new leadership” in the community, they unfortunately trivialize the efforts of many, such as the late Robert Herzstein, the founder of Neighbors for a Livable Community, who over many years — with vigilance, persistence and an eye to the future — worked together to protect the unique residential character of neighborhoods surrounding AU that the commissioners enjoy today.

Initially, AU denied any undergraduate enrollment increase, but when pressed, university officials attributed the increase to an abnormally high enrollment rate among its acceptance pool. AU argued for five months that it was accepting fewer students despite its increasing enrollment numbers. Because of what the two ANC commissioners would characterize as “overly contentious” persistence by the Spring Valley-Wesley Heights Citizens Association, we learned that AU was not in compliance with the campus plan and that its explanation was a fabrication. AU acknowledged to the Zoning Commission that dependence on tuition revenue prompted AU to raise undergraduate enrollment to compensate for declining law school and graduate student enrollment.

AU’s uncharacteristic candor opened the door to the formal agreement and a new era in town-gown relations. The lesson is that open and direct dialogue can build trust and encourage collaboration.

Unfortunately, in early 2017, AU — in an all-too-familiar pattern — walked away from its agreement and the commitments it made to the Spring Valley-Wesley Heights Citizens Association. Now, AU has retained the name of the Neighborhood Collaborative that was part of the formal agreement but without the collaboration that it promised. The July 12 Viewpoint authors call this “progress in town-gown relations.” We think not.

The July 12 Viewpoint authors point to AU’s recent willingness to plant more trees on the East Campus as an example of improved town-gown relations. Yet, in 2012, the Zoning Commission mandated an extensive mature tree buffer to screen the East Campus from neighboring homes and said that the buffer must be in place before the East Campus could be occupied. Again, AU fell far short of the commitment it made to its neighbors and the Zoning Commission. It has complied only selectively with other campus plan requirements.

Administrators acknowledge AU’s undergraduate enrollment must grow because AU is dependent on tuition as its major revenue source. AU’s postage-stamp-sized campus is nestled in a low-density residential neighborhood. Without a cap on its undergraduate enrollment, like the one in place for Georgetown University, AU’s growth inevitably will strain relations with its neighbors. Process alone will not eliminate those strains.

What is needed is open and direct dialogue between AU and its neighbors. AU also must live up to its commitments, especially campus plan mandates, without forcing neighbors to assume the role of zoning enforcement.

From generation to generation, residents have worked to safeguard and enhance the low-density residential character of neighborhoods surrounding AU for future generations. Singling out the “failures of the past” as the source for town-gown conflicts, as the two ANC commissioners suggest, is nothing more than convenient rhetoric by those who have little knowledge or appreciation of the past. We expect more from ANC representatives.

Instead, we should tap our collective knowledge, insights and ideas to build on past achievements and to understand and appreciate the genesis of past disagreements; work to sustain and build relationships with AU based on candor and openness that can survive inevitable disagreements over time; and respect the value of AU and its neighbors working together directly to solve problems and plan for the future.

Jeffrey Kraskin is president of the Spring Valley-Wesley Heights Citizens Association; William Krebs is the group’s first vice president; Benjamin Tessler is the group’s second vice president; Glenn Westley is the group’s secretary; Tom Smith is the group’s treasurer and senior vice president of Neighbors for a Livable Community; Elizabeth Trang is a board member of the association; Dennis Paul is president of Neighbors for a Livable Community; and Jessica Herzstein is a Spring Valley resident.