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GMU Plays Catch-Up

University grows and community worries about feeling the pains.

George Mason University’s enrollment grew by about 7,000 students over a six-year period, and now the school is trying to physically catch up to that growth.

"We are desperately behind in space for what we are currently trying to do," said Alan Merten, president of the university. "If you look at amount of square feet per student, we are far behind other doctoral institutions in Virginia, and probably nationally too."

GMU has several construction projects underway on its Fairfax campus, including residence halls, retail shops, a visual arts building and an engineering building. The added academic buildings are for the university’s two fastest-growing schools, said Merten, but the school will need more academic buildings if it wants to continue to play catch-up to compete with other institutions.

Merten said the school still won’t meet its intended square footage ratios even after all of the current construction is completed. The university doesn’t plan to assess additional future growth projects, however, until it crosses the present construction hurdle, which could take years.

The school is adding 1,000 beds to its current 4,000-bed residence hall capacity. Some of the beds are going to be located at the northeast side of campus, in a state-of-the-art mixed use facility that is planned to include a grocery store, cafes and retail. Students have shown they like more upscale establishments, said Merten, pointing out the success of Damon’s Restaurant on campus. All of the additional 1,000 beds should be available by the fall of 2008.

"Then we’ll just keep on building," said Merten.

THE SCHOOL HAS plans to go as high as 7,500 total beds, and it could tentatively have as many as 9,000 beds someday, said Merten. "The demand is incredible."

What’s also in demand for the entire area is a hotel and conference center, which the university has already approved to build on the southwest side of campus, said Merten. The center, which the school plans to build just to the east of Route 123, between Braddock Road and University Drive, is going to include about 150 rooms and a 20,000-square-foot conference center.

Merten said the university has been meeting with county and city officials at least once a year to discuss the school’s growth and its impact on surrounding communities, and so far the reaction to the conference center has been warm, he said.

"The only reaction to the hotel and conference center I’m getting is ‘make it big enough so we can use it," said Merten. "We’ll make it as big as we can afford."

George Mason University’s Fairfax campus is comprised of 675 acres, split up into three sections. The largest part of the campus is 375 acres, located to the north of Braddock Road and just east of Chain Bridge Road. Across Chain Bridge Road is another 200 acres, and the western most part of campus, is 100 acres at the northeast corner of the Braddock and Shirley Gate Road intersection. The university estimates that it will see an enrollment increase of 16 percent by 2020, and space on campus will increase 102 percent, according to recent studies.

Del. David Bulova (D-37) represents the Burke and Fairfax area, including the George Mason University Fairfax campus. He said he’s pleased with the more open communication that’s been going on between university, local and state officials, but work remains with regard to incorporating the surrounding communities into GMU’s aggressive growth.

"For all the wonderful things that George Mason [University] brings, we need to make sure that what does happen on campus … that we are prepared for it on the outside of campus," said Bulova. "They need to be considering things that maybe aren’t necessarily on campus."

The university’s facilities development department presented a slideshow at the George Mason-Braddock Community Forum, April 24. The presentation included the university’s plans for the future, including the construction of more buildings, facilities, parking structures, a hotel and conference center, and parking and roadway infrastructure to support the growth. The infrastructure accommodations presented only showed building for within GMU’s boundaries, but Bulova said the university needs to keep the community in mind too.

"We’re all glad the university is there and we want to see it succeed," said Bulova. "We want to see it grow in a way that respects the community."

Tony Vellucci, the president of the Kings Park West Civic Association, agrees that the university should build what the community can support, and nothing more. Vellucci said it’s unfortunate that the university doesn’t have to follow county zoning codes.

"What [the community] wants to do is make sure that what goes on inside of campus is commensurate, synchronized, balanced and coordinated with what goes on outside of Mason," said Vellucci.

WHILE THE UNIVERSITY in not required to follow county zoning laws, since it’s a state entity, Vellucci said the school would prove itself as a good neighbor if it chose to do so. When GMU erected a large electronic sign at the corner of Braddock and Sideburn roads, local residents and politicians were shocked. The school didn’t reach out to the community about its plans, and people immediately began complaining that the sign posed a traffic safety issue. Bulova said local legislators should be more forceful in making sure the university does file plans with the county, even though the county lacks the power to deny those plans.

"Any capital construction project over $100,000, while it doesn’t have to be approved by county, by law the university does have to present those plans to the county for review and comment," said Bulova. "That wasn’t done with this sign, although technically it should have been."

Merten said the sign is the source of his most positive feedback. More than 1.5 million visitors come to the campus each year, he said, and they need to know what’s going on. Once the hotel and conference center is built, Merten said an electronic sign could also fit in nicely with that entrance off Route 123.

"There’s no statistics that show it’s a traffic hazard," said Merten.

Bulova said it’s his "deepest hope" that the university would not consider putting up another electronic sign like the one at Sideburn and Braddock roads. He also said he wants more outreach, and the university officials proved they are capable, he said. When the university planned to build faculty housing near the Aspen Grove neighborhood, Tom Calhoun, vice president of facilities at GMU, presented the plans to that community.

"Calhoun got out there, presented what they were doing and then agreed to provide written updates," said Bulova. "That’s exactly how that should work; you tell them what you’re doing, and get their feedback."

Merten said the university is experiencing "exciting times." The added infrastructure and buildings would only help the university grow into its capabilities. And after 11 years as president, Merten said he isn’t burned out yet.

"I just keep having fun," he said.