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University Reachs Out to Community

Meetings to address impact of George Mason University's growth.

A series of meetings about the relationship between George Mason University and the surrounding communities were already scheduled when a large, bright sign with flashing lights showed up at one of the Fairfax campus’ entrances late last month.

The first of three educational meetings, convened as preparations for the larger forum meetings that begin next January, took place on Tuesday, Sept. 5, at the Kings Park Library Meeting Room, 9002 Burke Lake Road. Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock) immediately addressed the sign issue, which has perplexed her office and other local offices with phones calls from complaining residents in GMU’s neighboring communities.

“I don’t want that [sign] to dominate this discussion,” said Bulova. “It will be discussed [at length at a later date].”

Instead, members of nearby civic and homeowners associations, county and school police, GMU officials, county and state elected officials, planning and zoning representatives and both county and state departments of transportation officials came to the meeting and mainly saw a presentation of GMU’s current and future expansion and renovation projects.

Tom Calhoun, vice president of facilities at GMU, presented slides showing the detailed locations of ongoing, future and possible future projects on the campus, raising many questions among many community members present about size, density and traffic. Calhoun assured the concerned that all of the new construction at the school would not dramatically increase the size in student population.

“Most of construction is catching up to growth that’s occurred in the past,” said Calhoun. “The vast majority of it has [already] occurred. We’re trying to provide facilities and parking to that.”

CALHOUN PRESENTED data showing that many other large universities throughout the nation average about 184 square feet of space per student, while GMU has about 114 per student. That is why expansion is necessary, said Calhoun. “Most of the construction is to catch up to that average.”

A major construction project is already taking place on the northeast part of the campus, near the entrance from University Drive on the north. It’s the largest construction project the university has ever done, said Calhoun, and is running up a bill of about $75 million. The seven new buildings underway are residence halls, which will add about 1,000 new beds to the campus. A new dining facility and fitness center will be built as part of a main street area through campus, said Calhoun. The first floors of the residence halls will be public-use facilities, with things like retail and dining space available.

“The idea is we’re creating this main street … it will be very much of an urban, downtown kind of feel,” said Calhoun.

The project is scheduled for completion in the summer of 2008, but it’s the future, “imminent,” and potential projects that raised the community members' concerns. Approved future projects include a 180,000 square foot information technology and engineering building, Patriot Center renovations and additions, Performing Arts building additions and a temporary parking lot on the west side of the campus, just to the west of the athletic fields and just north of Braddock Road. The parking lot would be necessary, said Calhoun, while construction goes on for a new parking deck in the main campus area. It would be a 900-space, long-term lot, with shuttle busses taking students to and from the main campus area through a campus road, not Braddock Road. Many residents raised questions about the size of the lot, its density, location and necessity.

“We think that the traffic will be low,” said Calhoun. “We’ve agreed to count it, and if there are problems with that, we’ve agreed to mitigate it.”

The potential future projects, which Calhoun said have not been approved yet, even at the preliminary level, include faculty housing units, a hotel and conference center and a university-based retirement center.

AS THE COMMUNITY raised questions about the many projects Calhoun presented, he told them that as GMU expands further and further to the edges of its property, things would certainly be more visual to the surrounding areas.

“We would prefer not to take down any of the [buffering] trees; we would go to long lengths to keep them,” said Calhoun. “You’re going to see buildings.”

Tony Vellucci, president of the Kings Park West Civic Association, previously met with representatives from at least 14 other homeowners, community and civic associations to discuss GMU’s relationship with the surrounding communities, mainly with regard to its major construction and expansion projects. The group came up with some collective concerns, from transportation to housing and zoning issues, outlining those concerns in a short presentation given by Vellucci.

“Together, we are neighbors of George Mason University and we are concerned, not worried, about how Mason expansion plans will impact the region and what that means for our communities and our quality of life,” said Vellucci.

Vellucci told GMU officials that when he wanted to construct a shed on his property, he first went to the neighbor whose view might be obstructed by it. Since the neighbor told Vellucci that he enjoys his morning coffee from his kitchen overlooking the area where the shed would go, Vellucci said he decided to move the shed somewhere else since he values the relationship he has with his neighbor.

“Good neighbors talk to each other … we are asking you to be mindful of us,” said Vellucci.

He went on to question environmental consequences from stormwater run-off on GMU’s campus, new traffic problems because of higher density campus buildings and housing concerns. The faculty housing units that Calhoun outlined in his presentation, which are designed to recruit and retain quality faculty members, would be near the edges of campus, on land he said would be a more natural neighbor to the outside residential communities, rather than large research buildings or parking lots. Vellucci said the community is concerned this would only force more students into renting housing in the surrounding neighborhoods, thus creating more noise and traffic around the university. Vellucci said the community would see the faculty members as much better neighbors.

“We know the faculty lifestyle is much more aligned with our community lifestyle than that of undergraduate students,” said Vellucci.

THE COMMUNITY FORUM, which begins in January, is a way to address these concerns, said Vellucci. Bulova said the dialogue will be vital to the relationship between the university and the community. Chris LaPaille, vice president of university relations at GMU, said the university’s service to the community “is a role that George Mason takes very seriously.” The upcoming community forum will be a way to work together, she said, and hopefully end up with happy results for all sides.

“We know we can’t do this without you,” said LaPaille. “I consider this relationship to be an important asset to our future.”

“Having a dialogue as future development happens, I think, will be very healthy so what we get is something the community feels positive about,” said Bulova.