GU Boathouse Plan Meets Opposition University Defends Project Despite Resistance From Local Groups

Charles Nailen/The Hoya Georgetown University hopes to gain approval to build a boathouse west of the Washington Canoe Club (left). Opponents claim that public parkland should not be transfered to private use and and that

By Irmak Bademli Hoya Staff Writer

Georgetown University is seeking final approval from city zoning officials to build what would be the largest boathouse along the Potomac River, a 33,000-square-foot structure for the university’s 165-member rowing and sailing teams.

After over a decade of discussions, university officials have encountered last-minute opposition from local rowing organizations and environmental groups that oppose the project because it transfers public land for private use and obstructs views of the river.

Lengthy debates dominated three Zoning Commission public hearings held in June and July and although the university received partial approval of the project at a July 31 hearing, final approval is still pending.

The National Park Service endorsed a land swap with the university in 1998, contingent on the university receiving approval from the Zoning Commission to build on the new site. Georgetown would exchange a parcel of land it owns one mile north on the Potomac with the National Park Service in order to acquire land on the waterfront at 34th Street, an area specifically planned for boathouses by the park service in 1987. The National Park Service endorsed the land swap, specifically for boathouses by the park service in 1987.

Georgetown has raised $10 million of the needed $15 million for the project. Some of the funds have been designated specifically for the boathouse project and the university could lose these funds if the boathouse is not built by a certain time.

The university has sought permission for two variances, which are both pending approval from the D.C. Zoning Commission. One would waive the requirement that structures remain 20 feet from the river, allowing the boathouse as close as 15 feet from the water’s edge, reducing the distance boats must be carried. The second variance seeks to waive the parking requirement. Typically, the structure would be required to have a specified number of parking spaces available; however, because it would primarily be students and university personnel using the facility, Georgetown maintains that such a parking lot would not be necessary. If the requirement is waived, only spaces for emergency and service vehicles would be created.

The Zoning Commission deferred the request at its July 31 public hearing because the zoning request must be advertised to the general public for 30 days to “make sure everybody has an opportunity to comment on the zoning category,” University Architect Alan Brangman said.

The Zoning Commission could rule on the issue as early as next month, after the 30-day window expires on Sept. 26. “We’re looking forward to getting that ruling and moving ahead with the project. We are assuming it will be sometime soon,” he said.

The most recent architectural designs show a traditional, wood-shingled boathouse; the two-story boathouse would include a center building with two wings off each side, taking up to 300 feet along the waterfront. The university could break ground on the project later this year if city officials give the university zoning approval.

The new boathouse would include five storage bays for racing shells, a docking pier extending 70 feet into the water, indoor rowing tanks and weight training and locker room facilities.

“[There’s the] pride of having the whole facility to ourselves,” men’s crew team coach Tony Johnson said. “We go to compete with a school and they have a nice facility where the kids row and train from and we are sort of patching together,” he said.

Georgetown has been sharing Thompson’s Boathouse, located two miles north of the proposed site, with the George Washington University crew team and various high school teams, rowing clubs and individual rowers.

“We don’t have all of these pieces in one place now,” Johnson said. “We don’t have the space and where we are now at Thompson’s is very crowded.”

Having a site at which the crew team can do all of its training will make “the whole experience for the kids a more positive one,” Johnson said. He also said that while there is no planned increase, he would expect fewer drop-outs if the teams had new facilities, which could expand the team’s size.

Kathryn Chiu (SFS ’06), who competes on the light-weight women’s team, said the team would like to see the boathouse constructed. “I think everyone supports it, because it is a nice thing for a crew team to have,” she said. “We go to other schools, we went to Princeton and they have their own boathouse.”

Additionally, the construction of a new Swedish Embassy would remove outdoor storage space at Thompson’s, exacerbating space issues at the boathouse.

Larry Schuette, president of the Washington Canoe Club, does not think the new boathouse will solve the problem of space for high schoolers.

“They have agreed to use this argument to support GU in hopes that GU will help them when it comes time to build a new boathouse,” he said.

According to Bob Morris, conservation chairman of the Washington, D.C., Chapter of the Sierra Club, there are alternative ways of creating space for the high school rowers. Morris said Georgetown should work “with the public interest in mind,” citing St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, which shares its boathouse with high school rowing programs.

The local Advisory Neighborhood Commission unanimously passed a resolution on June 3 declaring its “enthusiastic support” for the zoning request and related variances, asking the Zoning Commission to give its advice “great weight” and D.C. council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) has expressed support for the project.

Public Parkland vs. Private Development

Roger K. Lewis, a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at University of Maryland, argued in a June 28 Washington Post op-ed that the Georgetown Waterfront needs “more waterfront destinations and activities, not more passive park space.” He said Georgetown Waterfront has an “industrial town feeling,” which would hopefully change with the construction of a new boathouse.

Morris does not agree with Lewis. “Should the taxpaying public give up their parkland

for the private recreational facilities of a non-taxpaying institution?” he asked. He also said “development interests” always sought to take public parkland and “use it for their private benefit.”

Frederick Mopsik, co-chair of the C&O Canal Association’s environmental committee, said the proposed site is part of the C&O Canal National Historical Park, stating that the university should show more respect to the presence of the park.

“There is no net loss of parkland,” Brangman said, as the university is exchanging its parcel on the Potomac Palisades with the like-sized National Park Service land.

According to Brangman, the land swap between the university and the National Park Service creates less of an interruption to the Capital Crescent Trail and Georgetown can build a boathouse on land planned specifically for boathouses. “It just seemed to make more sense to keep development further east rather than going west,” he said.

The university’s current land parcel has a 40 foot-wide right of way on the trail, and the land swap would give the right of way to the park service. “There is enough room [on the proposed site] to accommodate both our service road and the Crescent trail,” Brangman said.

Brangman said the site Georgetown currently owns can accommodate a boathouse if they cannot obtain approval for the current proposal. “If we had to design a boathouse for that site we could do that,” he said.

Morris said the university actually knows that the site it owns upstream Key Bridge is not suitable for the boathouse. Morris said the university’s testimony before the zoning commission states the university needs a wider site for their 60 ft. boats. “The upstream site is also frequently flooded and in an environmentally sensitive area that would require many encumbrances,” Morris said.

Traffic on “Potomac Avenue”

According to Schuette, it is dangerous to mix the rowers in with the canoeists and kayakers. While rowers face backward while they are rowing, canoeists and kayakers face forward.

Johnson said the safety issues on the river are not exclusive to the section of the river where the boathouse is proposed. “The safety issues . are all up and down the river, and that has nothing to do with where our boathouse is,” he said. “We still have those issues at other places, no matter where we’re located.”

The rowers try to stay to the Virginia side of the river, Schuette said, but they will have to cross the training area of the canoeists once the boathouse is built. “This will be especially true when they leave the dock and return to the dock,” he said.

Johnson said it was true that the rowers would have to cross the training and racing courses of the Canoe Club to get to the Virginia side of the river. “It’s no different than building a house where you have to cross a roadway to get out to the main highways. The point of contact is coming into our dock and leaving our dock,” he said. “Yes, we have to go across their practice lanes, race lanes, but it doesn’t mean that they have to interfere.”

Johnson said the river at the proposed site is over a thousand feet wide, while the racing course of the canoe club is only 200 feet wide. “There’s plenty of room, people have to get along,” he said.

According to Johnson, the situation is much simpler compared to the more complex traffic created around Thompson’s. “It’s something to be considerate, it’s something to be monitored, it’s something to be careful with, but we have to do all that down at Thompson’s right now,” he said.

“Pushing on the trail, pushing on the river.”

Zoning Commission chair Carol Mitten expressed her concern about the size of the boathouse and the facilities that need to be included inside at a June 5 public hearing. “I just want to encourage [the D.C. Office of Planning] and encourage the applicant to take a good, hard look at what you really need, because we’re pushing on the trail [and] we’re pushing on the waterfront,” she said.

Mopsik said the boathouse is too large and too tall, obstructing the view of the river from the trail. “The proposed boathouse is as much as 21 feet above the towpath for a length of over 200 feet. This is in an area that holds a historic and beautiful view of the Potomac River,” he said.

Mopsik also said that the university did not anticipate the obstruction the boathouse would cause. “In testimony on behalf of Georgetown University by Stephen Muse [the architect], there was an admission that no consideration was made for sightlines from the C&O Canal NHP,” he said.

Brangman said the obstruction the boathouse will cause is similar to that of the Washington Canoe Club and the Potomac Boathouse and the 280 foot obstruction will not last long for the bikers because they are going at high speeds. “Effectively it’s like looking through a picket fence. Sometimes you’ll be able to see, sometimes you’ll not be able to see,” he said.

Schuette said the neighboring Washington Canoe Club wants the boathouse to be proportionate to their boathouse. He said the club was told in 1990s that the boathouse “would not overwhelm Washington Canoe Club, and would be scale and proportional to WCC.”

The current design calls for a building seven times the size of the Washington Canoe Club. According to Schuette several agencies, including the D.C. State Historic Preservation Office, the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation and the National Park Service all agreed that the building would be one-third shorter and two-thirds smaller.

Schuette said he cannot understand why Georgetown is building a boathouse that could store 80 shells when it only has 15 shells in Thompson’s Boathouse right now. “Maybe if it was sized for the program people wouldn’t be that unhappy,” he said.

Johnson said that universities with similar programs have similar or larger boathouses. He said comparing the size of the proposed boathouse with each of the two Harvard boathouses is not just. “Their two boathouses do the function we are trying to do in one. Do you compare the two separately or do you combine the two?” he asked.

Johnson said even though Thompson’s Boathouse seems smaller, its outdoor storage area makes it larger. “Every boathouse on the Potomac River is under-built,” he said. “They all have outdoor storage, they all have waiting lists for membership, they don’t have enough space.”

Chiu said the coaches hoped the university would have its own boathouse when the light-weight women’s team would become a full-sized team.

“The team is a lot bigger than what they expected. We are taking out 3-4 boats a practice, which is a lot considering we have 6 boats for all the women, including varsity and freshmen,” she said. “We wish we had more boats and good boats and resources.”

Johnson accepted that the boathouse will provide a larger storage area than what is needed by the program. He said, however, that he wanted the boathouse to be sufficient for the future needs of the university crew teams.

“The Georgetown [boathouse], we think, will be good for more than our lifetimes,” he said. “More than my lifetime, more than your lifetime.”

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