The Future of Public Health at GW

June 20, 2011

rendering of the exterior of the School of Public Health & Health Policy building from Washington Circle

By Jennifer Eder

The D.C. Zoning Commission gave preliminary approval last week for a proposed new building for the School of Public Health and Health Services after a public hearing featuring GW students, faculty, staff and neighborhood residents who testified in support of the project.

Located on Washington Circle at K Street, 24th Street and New Hampshire Avenue, the building would feature more than 115,000 square feet of floor space for state-of-the-art classrooms, research labs, departmental office space and conference rooms at a projected cost of $75 million. The building, which would have seven floors above grade and two below, would be the first GW building visible to people who approach campus from Washington Circle and Pennsylvania Avenue.

“One of the unique things about what we do is we’re very engaged with the D.C. community,” Lynn Goldman, SPHHS dean, said while testifying at the hearing. “We have hundreds of partnerships with not-for-profits and government agencies here. Our students, as part of their training, do a practicum and many of them wind up in jobs in public health in D.C.”

Students and faculty work on many issues that directly affect D.C. residents, Dr. Goldman said, including HIV/AIDS prevention, safe food and drinking water, vaccine distribution, teen pregnancy and obesity prevention. The school’s Center for Health and Health Care in Schools works directly with District of Columbia Public Schools to promote school health, and the Center for Health Policy is helping the D.C. Department of Health implement Medicaid reform.

The site for the proposed building, which would be the home for the school’s seven departments, is located on Square 39 where GW’s Warwick Building currently stands. The building would be across the street from the George Washington University Hospital and one block from the School of Medicine and Health Sciences and the Himmelfarb Library.

The building would serve as a consolidated home for most of the school’s faculty, students and staff for the first time in the 14-year history of SPHHS. The building would also meet the needs of the 1,000 students in the school, which is currently spread out across eight locations.

“This is a remarkable opportunity – a real dream come true for many of us – to have a central home for our students and faculty,” said Alan Greenberg, chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and co-director of the HIV/AIDS Institute. “We take great pride in being the only school of public health in the nation’s capital. Having a recognizable and strategically located building will greatly enhance our school’s visibility, our reputation, our cohesiveness and our effectiveness.”

SPHHS offers a variety of undergraduate, graduate and doctoral programs in various fields of study, including exercise science, health policy, community and global health.

Other building features would include an auditorium, student lounge and study areas as well as exercise rooms and specialty monitoring labs specific to the teaching and research activities of GW’s Department of Exercise Science. The facility will serve as a central location for research in public health and collaboration between SPHHS and government and non-governmental organizations.

“Having a new physical facility to house our school will enable us to bring together the numerous constituencies who are central to the public health response from the community, government, academia and non-governmental organizations and convene them in a safe and neutral academic environment,” Dr. Greenberg said during his testimony before the Zoning Commission.

Meaghan Smith, a graduate student in the epidemiology department, said during her testimony that she’s taken advantage of GW’s location in the nation’s capital by working and volunteering at various public health organizations. Ms. Smith said she thinks that advantage would be even greater for students in the proposed building.

“If I had the opportunity to be a student in the new proposed building, I know it would have had a significant impact on my growth and development as a student and aspiring public health professional,” said Ms. Smith.

Melissa Perry, chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, said the extra meeting space would allow her research seminars to be more accessible to the community. Dr. Perry’s research focuses on the reproductive health effects of environmental exposure. Her department also partners with Potomac Riverkeeper to improve the water quality of the Potomac.

“We’re actively involved in seeking to improve the health of D.C. residents,” said Dr. Perry.

Alex Dickman, director of the Physical Activity in Public Health program, said the community would continue to benefit from the outreach programs that the school provides. SPHHS students conduct blood pressure and blood glucose screenings at Miriam’s Kitchen and work at area hospitals, schools and nonprofit organizations. Students also intern at more than 400 sites in D.C. and around the world.

Current plans call for the building to be constructed with a range of green and sustainable materials, and the project will target a minimum of Silver certification under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System. Two new GW buildings— West Hall and South Hall— have received LEED Gold certification.

“The building’s many green features will make it a point of pride for GW and the neighborhood,” said Liz Borkowski, a graduate student in the Department of Health Policy. “With numerous bike racks and a design that encourages taking the stairs rather than the elevator, it will encourage the public health goal of active living.”

As part of the project design, the university also plans to expand the existing public park at the intersection of 24th Street and New Hampshire Avenue.

Sara Maddux, a member of the West End Citizens Association, said the neighborhood appreciated GW’s sensitivity to the community that would be immediately impacted by this new project. Ms. Maddox thanked GW for including a safe pedestrian crossing, wider sidewalks and park benches.

The Zoning Commission’s final approval of the project is scheduled for July 25 and, pending this approval, construction will begin in early 2012 with anticipated completion in advance of the spring 2014 semester.

“Having this incredible facility will really change public health in the District and improve the lives of the residents of Washington, D.C.,” said Dr. Greenberg. “It will contribute greatly to the neighborhood’s reputation as a national center of positive thought and action to improve humankind.”