City Holds Hearing on SEC

March 28, 2011

man pointing to 3D rendering of SEC as Steve Lerman and commission attendees look on

The university last week presented plans for the Science and Engineering Complex to the D.C. Zoning Commission, reinforced by a procession of GW students, faculty members and neighborhood residents who testified in support of the project.

“GW has emerged as one of the nation’s leading universities, but it has been a long time since it’s been able to enhance its science and engineering facilities,” GW Provost Steven Lerman told the commissioners at the hearing Thursday evening.

Plans for the building would nearly double the space on campus allotted to several science and engineering disciplines—space that would allow GW to move “into a much more competitive position,” said Dr. Lerman.

The building would “make this region a magnet for new science and engineering scholars,” he said, and would bring together students and faculty members “in ways that we think will foster a brand new era in research.”

The new complex—to be located on the site of the existing University Parking Garage, at 22nd and H streets, NW—received a unanimous green light from the GW Board of Trustees in October and must be approved by the D.C. Zoning Commission.

Plans call for eight stories above grade and six below, four of which would be for parking. The endeavor would bring under one roof several departments from the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering and Applied Science that currently are spread across a dozen buildings on the Foggy Bottom Campus.

Building plans also include a variety of sustainable elements that would target silver-level certification on the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system.

The D.C. Zoning Commission is expected to vote on the project in the coming months. Pending approval, the university anticipates construction would begin this summer and the complex would be completed in late 2014.

At the hearing, neighborhood residents offering testimony spoke to the university’s efforts to include the community in the planning process, and to benefits for the neighborhood that come with helping to keep GW vibrant and competitive.

“This is a good plan, this science complex,” Foggy Bottom resident Anne Savage told the commissioners. “It’s good for GW students, and it’s good for the District, and it’s good for us local Foggy Bottom-ites.”

Neighborhood resident James Morris said he viewed the Science and Engineering Complex as “a more than fair trade for a parking garage.”

The testimony of students and faculty members, meanwhile, emphasized the lack of modern facilities and equipment—using terms like “old,” “sadly out-of-date” and “far too cramped”—which they said prevents students and researchers from reaching their full potential.

Can Korman, associate dean for research and graduate studies in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, said the new building is “crucial” to recruiting and retaining top faculty members and students, and to increasing “by several fold our research productivity and reputation.”

The current set-up, he said, is akin to asking students and researchers to “enter the Olympics—in other words, competing with and for the best minds internationally—with limited training facilities and a poor diet.”

As an example, Diana Lipscomb, chair of the Department of Biological Sciences, said her department is currently trying to establish an urban ecology program, which includes using beehives on a rooftop to study the work of bees in pollinating city plants. But, she said, that building’s roof is “cramped and crowded” with room enough for only one student at a time.

A planned greenhouse and green roof for the Science and Engineering Complex, she said, would offer much deeper opportunities.

Doctoral student Aleksandar Stefanovski, in the Department of Computer Science, was among those who highlighted that the building has been designed to foster interaction and close what he saw as a communication gap between departments, and even between graduate students and undergraduates in the same department.

“Scientific progress and innovation … happen when there is open communication and exchange of ideas,” he said.

Representatives from two neighborhood groups—the D.C. Advisory Neighborhood Commission serving Foggy Bottom and West End, and the West End Citizens Association—also noted their concerns at the hearing, including increased vehicular and foot traffic, the width of sidewalks and overall pedestrian safety.

D.C. Zoning Commission Chairman Anthony Hood appealed to both the university and the neighborhood groups to continue dialogue on the issues, particularly pedestrian safety and furthering plans to accommodate a possible second Foggy Bottom Metro entrance in the future.

Mr. Hood said continued cooperation, through efforts like the quarterly GW Community Advisory Committee meetings, are especially important since the city-approved 2007 Foggy Bottom Campus Plan includes another 15 potential development sites over its 20-year duration.

“How do we find a balance that’s conducive to people who live there and also how do we accommodate the students, who want to be considered with MIT?” he said. “We’ve got to find that balance.”

Alicia O’Neil Knight, senior associate vice president for operations, said the university is pleased with the growing number of community supporters that has attended Zoning Commission hearings over the past several years. 

“We understand that our outreach must continue, and we look forward to working with all of our neighbors as GW moves forward with this project, and others in the future,” she said. “I look forward to the commission’s vote on the project and to our moving forward to deliver this truly transformational building.”

Full video of last week’s proceedings is available on the D.C. Zoning Commission's website.