This post was originally published in 2010 on Greater Greater Washington.
With its 2011 Campus Plan, American University has a once-in-a-century chance to reshape Upper Northwest.
The Plan offers two opportunities to local residents. The first is for a beautiful, sustainable, and safe Nebraska Avenue. The second is for a diminished impact on the lives and communities of neighbors. However, in order to reach a mutual solution, residents must give up outdated concerns over traffic flow and urban density.
The Campus Plan, as presented in May, only builds on university land. In addition to the relocation of the law school to Tenleytown, American proposes adding 2,000 new dormitory beds, constructing of a handful academic buildings, upgrading athletic facilities, and vacating leased properties.
Most significantly, the plan would partially eliminate the vast parking lot on the east side of Nebraska. In its place, administrators are asking to build a few dormitories, a row of townhouses, and an eventual “signature” academic building. Even more so than the relocated law school, the dormitory upgrades will benefit the neighborhood.
Housing AU’s students poses problems for administrators and locals alike. The university currently has 6,124 undergraduate students, with only half students housed on-campus. The remaining half live in houses and apartment dispersed throughout the surrounding neighborhoods. Even on-campus housing is less than ideal. Students live in cramped triples and in the Berkshire apartment building.
Having students live in the surrounding neighborhoods causes complications and occasional conflicts. Among other things, some students drive to campus. Moving more students into walking distance will save energy, reduce needless traffic, and cut drunk driving. But more importantly, it may help diffuse tensions between locals and students.
AU is offering a variety of housing styles in their new buildings. Suites and apartment style living join most of the social benefits of group houses with the conveniences of dorms. Moreover, with nicer facilities and fewer cramped rooms, students will be even more inclined to live in university housing. Once they have rooms to party in, students have fewer reasons to form off-campus party houses and fewer reasons to negatively impact the neighborhood.
The new beds will benefit the community by themselves. The buildings that contain those beds and the campus surrounding them can also benefit all other residents of the DC area, through good design.
West of Ward Circle, university buildings will flank Nebraska avenue, opening up potential for a remarkable space that extends the original campus onto the new one. Already, he elimination of the ugly parking lots will improve the area. Good design would make it world-class.
With thoughtful space planning and attractive details, the campus can be a joy to inhabit and pleasant for non-students to pass through. It is possible to design to minimize light and noise pollution. As for density, the floor-area-ratio for the whole campus will only increase from 0.5 to 0.8. There will be plenty of park space left over.
Redesigning Nebraska is in the mutual interest of the city and the university. Nebraska connects American’s campuses and it connects the school to the city. A boulevardized street with multiple pedestrian crossings, improved bicycle facilities, and a usable Ward Circle would transform Nebraska from a dull arterial to the great avenue planners imagined it would be.
The ANCs, neighborhood groups and the university need to work together to craft a plan that matches American University’s needs with a refined implementation that benefits the community. Constructive dialogue, formal commitments, and community benefits will make an acceptable plan into one tat could be a model of academic planning.