Members of the community arrived at the first public engagement meeting on the next UDC Campus Plan eager to hear about the university’s goals for the next decade. The University of the District of Columbia is, after all, an important cultural, community and commercial hub, and one with a growing presence, if not in its student body, in its physical size. But some attendees expressed disappointment and frustration with the February 18th proceedings.
“It was outrageous,” said Bill Breer, a longtime Forest Hills resident and Forest Hills Citizens Association board member. He had expected an outline of a plan. “Without that, there could be no real discussion,” he said.
The public engagement process is a required step as the university prepares to submit its 2021-2030 plan to the District Zoning Commission in August. The current plan expires at the end of the year.
Breer and his wife Peggy arrived at the public meeting a few minutes late, after introductory remarks by Stephen Varga, a consultant from Cozen O’Conner. His PowerPoint presentation included an overview of the campus plan process and a zoning map that highlighted the campus boundary in blue (below). Other than the Student Center, Connecticut Avenue properties that UDC owns or controls did not fall within the boundary. That came as a surprise, because it now holds the master leases for 4225 and 4250 Connecticut Avenue. Between those buildings and its law school at 4340 Connecticut, the university controls as much as 90 percent of the vacant retail space along the Van Ness commercial corridor.
Attendees were further surprised to learn that their input was to be restricted to the area outlined on the zoning map. That would leave feedback on the commercial spaces off the table. This unexpected constraint was clearly stated by Varga, and was confirmed by Avis Russell, the acting general counsel to the university. The restriction did not seem in keeping with the 2011-2020 campus plan, which includes many references to UDC’s relationship to the Van Ness commercial area.
Participants were asked to participate in a “SWOT” analysis. They sat at tables with blank sheets of paper labeled “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.” Attendees were to have discussions among each other and fill out the sheets of paper. Some stated that it would be difficult to provide input since their knowledge about the university was limited.
Dipa Mehta, a former Van Ness Main Street board member, was one of those raising the issue of the lack of context. She asked Eric Thompson, UDC’s vice president of real estate and facilities, to provide a quick overview of its six-year capital plan. He briefly explained that the buildings on campus needed to be rehabbed. He spoke about the master leases for 4225 and 4250 Connecticut Avenue, and the plan to purchase 4250 Connecticut for $37 million. (At its own meeting that night, ANC 3F passed a resolution in favor of the purchase, with conditions.) He did not mention that UDC houses the DC Institute for Politics, Policy, and History, or the plan to give the DC Archives a home on campus (also the subject of an ANC 3F resolution that night).
Some of the feedback recorded by consultants can be found here. Not included in these notes are concerns some participants raised about university’s declining enrollment. When UDC was drawing up its 2011-2020 plan, around 5,800 students were enrolled in its degree programs. It set a goal for the next decade of increasing enrollment to 10,000, but reduced that number to 6,000 after discussions with the Zoning Commission. The current campus plan states:
“This enrollment increase is needed to permit the University to develop its programs and attract and retain talented students and faculty. The proposed enrollment will be easily accommodated within existing campus academic and administrative infrastructure, much of which is currently underutilized.”
In spring 2019, total enrollment, including part-time, community college and law school students, was 4,270. Even so, UDC’s footprint is growing. Gloria Garcia, the new executive director of Van Ness Main Street, understands the university’s importance as a stakeholder and partner in ensuring vibrancy of the commercial corridor. She suggests that at the next public engagement meeting, currently scheduled for March 3rd, UDC give a presentation on the previous campus plan and lessons learned. Garcia also suggests an overview of the university’s $600 million capital improvement plan, and a discussion of UDC’s plans for 4250, 4340, and 4225 Connecticut Avenue.
At the February 18th meeting, UDC said it would reveal the results of stakeholder surveys at the March 3rd public engagement meeting (the public is invited to take the survey here). At the April 7th meeting, it will reveal recommendations. The May 5th meeting will include a presentation on transportation findings. And UDC is to have the final recommendations at the final public meeting on June 2nd.
UDC has previously said those meetings, on the first Tuesday of each month, will begin at 4:30 p.m., but after feedback critical of the February 18th meeting’s 4:30 start time, it was agreed that some of the meetings would be scheduled later.