Viewpoint: Town-gown relations seeing progress at AU

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By Troy Kravitz and Jonathan McHugh

Before American University and the surrounding community there is an opportunity — and an obligation — to build a functional, productive relationship. The opportunity is bolstered by new leadership, both at the university and among stakeholders representing the university’s neighbors. The obligation stems from the failures of the past, wherein overly contentious relations have failed to produce positive and constructive results for the broader community.

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We are pleased to share that progress is being achieved. American University, representatives from the adjacent advisory neighborhood commissions, and engaged community groups are constructing a new process designed to build trust among neighbors, open dialogue regarding concerns and objectives, and, eventually, improve cooperation between the community and the university.

The new process has two main components: a Neighborhood Forum and a Neighborhood Collaborative. The purpose of the forum is to increase the knowledge of neighbors about the evolving nature of higher education, best practices in campus planning and the District’s zoning paradigm so they can engage with AU as equally informed participants.

The Neighborhood Forum also serves a second but equally important function as a space to build familiarity and trust among attendees. Participants come from many neighborhoods, representing groups with differing views about how AU relates and responds to the community. The forum discusses these views in an open, respectful and joint fashion. It is from these repeated interactions that participants build a unified vision of AU’s place in our community. The forum is open to neighbors only; despite providing key resources, American University is not permitted to participate, and no comments from meetings are shared with the school.

The second half of the new process, the Neighborhood Collaborative, is more transactional in nature. In the collaborative, unlike the forum, AU representatives are equal participants. While the presentations and discussion topics at forum meetings are decided by the attendees’ interests, meetings of the collaborative are focused on prompt and specific consensus-based resolution of university-community issues.

There are similarities between the forum and collaborative, such as having trust-building as a main objective. By working together to effectively respond to day-to-day, neighborhood-specific issues, representatives of the community and AU are building the necessary foundation for cooperation on broader, community-wide issues. And with negotiations over a new campus plan looming on the horizon, now is the time to begin casting that foundation.

The example set by Georgetown University — highlighted in a June 14 editorial in The Current — is encouraging. By adopting processes like those described above, Georgetown morphed in short order from the poster child of poor town-gown relations into a shining example of community cooperation. This experience is not lost on AU: With the express support of the Zoning Commission, AU hired the same facilitator who helped right the ship in Georgetown to oversee the process in our community.

The community is already seeing dividends from its investment in the form of better relations with AU: Neighbors adjacent to the newly constructed East Campus found the university cooperative, responsive and effective at redressing their complaints about inadequate vegetation near their homes.

Despite this progress, challenges remain. The university has appeared sluggish in providing pertinent financial information to community representatives. And some neighborhood groups oppose the creation of the Neighborhood Collaborative, continuing to insist on private, bilateral negotiations between their organizations and the university. Nevertheless, we are confident the new cooperative and open model is the best path forward to ensure all points of view are recognized and included.

The potential benefits to the community of an improved relationship with American University are substantial. A stronger university can provide additional amenities that enhance the desirability of our neighborhoods, including library, gym and green space access; cultural offerings; lectures; and shuttle service. At a more fundamental level, universities attract and build human capital, and this all gets priced into the value of our homes. Peer-reviewed research finds the economic impact on nearby neighborhoods of incremental investments by universities can be considerable.

We welcome your involvement. The best place to start is the next monthly meeting of the Neighborhood Forum on Aug. 22 at 7:30 p.m. in Room 247 of the Mary Graydon Center. With your help, we can build a functional, inclusive process in which all interested parties negotiate in good faith for the betterment of the entire community. Our community, including American University, deserves it.

Troy Kravitz and Jonathan McHugh are advisory neighborhood commissioners for single-member district 3D02 in Spring Valley and 3E05 in American University Park, respectively.