Updated July 12th to add the Zoning Commission hearing date.
by Mary Beth Tinker and Kesh Ladduwahetty
The next two years may see the demolition of one of the largest buildings on UDC’s Van Ness campus. In place of the demolished building, it has been proposed that a new building be built for the DC Archives.
We first learned of the change of plans regarding Building 41 in April. Mary Beth received a “notice of intent” to file a zoning application that would amend the UDC Campus Master Plan to include the demolition of Building 41 and the construction of a new DC Archives building. To us, the notice indicated a failure of campus and community engagement that is mandated by the District. And this is why.
In June, 2021, Mary Beth testified at the Zoning Commission’s public hearing on the Campus Master Plan, raising concerns about UDC’s green space. At that time, there were three proposals for Building 41, none involving demolition: 1) DC Archives, 2) student housing, or 3) academic space.
In her testimony, Mary Beth asked that the UDC Garden Club be included in plans. ANC 3F also passed a resolution calling for more community involvement in the UDC campus plan. UDC General Counsel Avis Russell stated at that time that Juanita Gray, UDC’s community liaison, would contact Mary Beth.
In July 2021, the Zoning Commission approved the master plan with the conditions that a university-community task force would meet quarterly (Zoning Commission order, page 22), and, at the university’s own suggestion, the task force would include a representative of the UDC Garden Club (Zoning Commission order, page 19).
Mary Beth was never contacted to join the task force and her inquiry went unanswered.
At a May 23rd meeting that we requested with Ms. Gray to talk about the archives plans, she said, “The Mayor wants this.” When we asked about the university-community task force, we learned that it is not a task force in the usual sense, nor does it meet quarterly. Instead, Ms. Gray said that occasional public meetings are held, most recently last August.
We do not know if UDC’s internal rules for amending the master plan were followed. But we do know that the Zoning Commission’s conditions for approval were not met.
A decision with significant impact to the university community and neighborhood should be made with meaningful community engagement. Dr. Elizabeth Gearin, Professor of Urban Land Use Planning at UDC, responding on June 8th to our concerns about the proposal for Building 41, stressed that, “Local stakeholders should have the opportunity to influence local development.”
Student opinions in particular should be front and center. On June 9th, Brent Thigpen, the president of the UDC Student Government Association, spoke with Mary Beth about proposed changes to Building 41, saying, “Students are the reason this university is open, and we should have a say about these issues. Student housing, for example, is something that students need.”
This is about more than Building 41. The gap between how government is supposed to work – and how it actually does – leads to cynicism and a lack of civic engagement by the public, particularly young people.
It is vital to close this “democracy gap” and demand government function as it is supposed to. Decisions regarding UDC’s resources should be made with the meaningful input of students, faculty, staff and the larger community. The mayor should weigh in, but the decision should also consider the input of all the major stakeholders of the university and community.
The Zoning Commission’s hearing to amend the campus plan to allow the demolition of Building 41 has been scheduled for September 21st. The case number is 20-33B. To get involved and learn more, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mary Beth Tinker and Kesh Ladduwahetty are volunteers with the UDC Garden Club, a project associated with UDC’s College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences (CAUSES). The club maintains organic gardens on the Van Ness campus as part of UDC’s network of food hubs across the District.