Strong Opposition to the Georgetown University Boathouse

-- by Sally C. Strain

Sycamore Islander, August 2003

[While this article reports publicly expressed views by several members on the issue, Sycamore Island as an organization has not taken a position.]

Looking downstream from the proposed
GU Site, just beyond Key Bridge.
-- Photo by Norman Metzger
Sycamore Island Club members opposed to Georgetown University's proposal for an enormous boathouse made their views known to the DC Zoning Commission during May and June.

In letters and testimony to the Commission, Carl Linden, Irene and Robert Sinclair, Sally Strain and David Winer all protested the size and location of the proposed private facility. The structure, adjacent to and 96' upstream of the Washington Canoe Club, would be seven times larger than the WCC, towering 65' above the river, and situated 7-15' from the edge of the river with a 75 foot dock extending out into the water.

As part of a land swap arrangement with the National Park Service, the building would be constructed at the gateway to and within the C&O Canal National Historical Park, on a narrow strip of land between the Capital Crescent Trail and the river.

porposed boathouse
Proposed GU Boathouse, on the left, and the Washington Canoe Club on the right,
with an outline image of the WCC layered on the proposed GU Boathouse.
-- Photo courtesy of GU; layering by David Winer.

Carl Linden in his testimony before the DC Zoning Commission pointed out that:

Our C&O Canal National Historical Park was designed to protect all the scenic treasures along the whole length of the canal and river. The Park Service fails in its manifest duty when it is ready to yield up such treasures for the private enjoyment of the few and at the public's cost. This is the core issue before us.... What was the University thinking when this massive, four-storied boathouse was designed and then to be wedged into the narrow strip of park land between the Crescent Trail and the C&O Canal, on the one side and the Potomac shore line on the other. It invades park land not only at a point of very constricted land access but a poor point of access to the river close by the rocky shallows of the Three Sisters outcroppings. The real solution is clear. Prevent the loss of park land and the obstruction of the grand view from the C&O Canal National Historical Park by locating the boathouse site in the section the NPS is reserving for water activities between Key Bridge and 34th Street.... Access to the river is far better in this section of riverfront and the view, incidentally, superb.

Irene and Bob Sinclair wrote a letter to the Chairman of the DC Zoning Commission citing many reasons for rejecting the proposed boathouse, such as:

The encroachment on a unique resource -- the undeveloped semi-wilderness upriver from Georgetown. Any development on this land would be unacceptable.... The mind-boggling distortion in terms of scale. The boathouse would dominate all the buildings upstream from Washington Harbour, and unlike WH, it would not even be set back from the river.... The encroachment on the Potomac River itself.... The use of the Capital Crescent Trail for access....

Sally Strain testified as a Palisades resident and spokesperson for the Defenders of Potomac River Parkland, whose views were shared by the following groups: DC Chapter of the Sierra Club, Audubon Naturalist Society, American Canoe Association, C&O Canal Association, Coalition for the Capital Crescent Trail, Washington Canoe Club, League of Women Voters of the District of Columbia, the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants of the District of Columbia, Potomac Pedalers Touring Club, Committee of 100 for the Federal City, National Parks Conservation Association, and the American Whitewater Association. The alliance was formed in April, and is dedicated to the protection and preservation of the undeveloped shoreline and riparian zone between Key Bridge and Chain Bridge.

Her testimony included these objections to the proposal:

The size of the structure is enormous and inappropriate for the site. The height, length, depth, width and bulk of the structure, in addition to the new access road, dock and proximity of the building to the CCT, Towpath, Canal bank and river, would all have negative environmental and visual impacts on the recreational opportunities offered along the waterfront.

The risks and difficulties of building, servicing, maintaining and using an enormous building on the site -- a narrow section of flood plain over a corroding sewer line -- are considerable. They include potential runoff into the river from rain or flooding of up to 25,000 cubic feet of fill required to establish a level grade during construction, as well as unknown safety considerations and potential damage to a leaking Canal bank. Traffic and parking needs during and after construction are unknown, and no traffic study has been done or reviewed by the public.

A better location -- with both environmental and practical advantages -- is available downstream of Key Bridge, on degraded land needing redevelopment.

David Winer in his testimony before the Commission expressed his astonishment

... that organizations that are the stewards of the land proposed for a private boathouse would consider placing it on public parkland. It is even more astonishing that the proposed project is so invasive and ill-suited for the particular piece of land.

He added that:

The users of the downtown Potomac, the Capital Crescent Trail, and the C&O Canal are going to be shocked and dismayed by this project once its size and location become known....

This is not a typical boathouse, but rather a palace of a boathouse.... If a boathouse should be built along this stretch of the river, it should be in scale with other facilities, and especially, it does not need to be placed on undeveloped parkland.

There is simply not enough space on and beside the trail to incorporate the roadway necessary to service this huge facility. Where will the trucks, trailers, buses, and autos go when the facility is used for races and social functions? ...

The needs of the public seem to be understood poorly. This is not a little used piece of park. The traffic along here is intense at times, so much so, that the various recreational and commuting users of the CCT frequently interfere with each other....

The hearing took place 5/19, 6/5 and 6/19 for a total of 12 hours. The DC Zoning Commission is now reviewing the letters and testimony, as well as the rebuttals to the testimony from the applicant (Georgetown University) and the opposition.

Three organizations, the Washington Canoe Club, the Capital Crescent Trail, and the C&O Canal Association, all received “party” status at the hearing as the most affected groups from the proposed boathouse, allowing them to submit special comments/rebuttals in opposition to the proposal following the hearing for consideration of the Commissioners.

The DC Zoning Commission has not indicated when they will make a decision on the application for the boathouse. [N.B. The hearing record was closed June 27th.] Those interested in staying up to date on this issue are welcome to contact Sally Strain at seawalk@

[Editor’s Note: In early July, the DC State Historic Preservation Officer, Lisa Burcham, ruled that the proposed Boathouse is subject to a “106 Review.” Barbara Zartman, active both in Georgetown civic affairs and in the Committee of 100 for the Federal City, notes that “the 106 process can be triggered whenever federal dollars or resources are being spent.  The Georgetown University boathouse is on land now owned by NPS….The Historic Preservation Office will review the entire Georgetown Waterfront Park plan, and all structures associated with it."]