The name Wally Mlyniec should be familiar to any current Georgetown student. Professor Mlyniec served as director of Georgetown Law’s pioneering Juvenile Justice clinic from 1973 to 2015, a whopping 42 years of service. However, most students probably know Mlyniec’s name from Construction Notes, the sprawling tomes of information that grace the entire campus’ inbox.
As I prepared to leave campus in a few days, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Professor Mlyniec to discuss Construction Notes, his interest in construction, and what he thinks Capitol Crossing will do for the area and for Georgetown Law.
Construction Notes have been a constant across my experience at Georgetown Law. The ambitious Capitol Crossing project, the plan to cover and develop the segment of I-395 adjacent to campus, served as an environmental alarm clock for me during my 1L year. The construction crew’s bright floodlights shining into my corner room at the Gewirz Student Center encouraged me to work well into the night. The first e-mails I received from Professor Mlyniec were not welcome, often informing me of a water shutdown.
As the fog of 1L faded, I began to read these curious e-mails called Construction Notes, filled with the kind of trivia that I desperately needed between reading assignments. Eventually, I would ask people on campus – “So, how about those e-mails from Wally Mlyniec?” There are two responses to that question: blank stares, or instant recognition and mutual understanding.
Mlyniec’s Construction Notes usually open with the information that is critical to most readers –a few paragraphs of information on the recent and forthcoming developments at the construction site, and what students can expect in terms of noise or access disruption. Invariably, however, the e-mails continue, plunging into a deep discussion of a specific topic or recent development on the project. Photos, elegant prose, well-researched details and, in one instance (that I’ve read), poetry, accompany the Notes.
The subject matter is often esoteric, and frequently has quite little to do with the practice of law (perhaps explaining the reactions of students did not recognize my mention of Mlyniec’s e-mails). I saw these e-mails as a welcome break from the study of law, or an easy way to pass the time on a bogged down commute (or, in one case, a plane trip). For example, the most recent Note dives into the history of the use of stone in construction, and connects that a detailed look at the stone being used for Capitol Crossing, where it comes from, and how it gets to the construction site. Two notes were dedicated to the art of moving historic buildings.
According to Mlyniec, the Construction Notes began as an effort to inform students living on campus, at the Gewirz Student Center, about the construction of the Hotung and Sport & Fitness buildings over ten years ago. Mlyniec’s main concern was to help keep students aware of any noise disruptions that might interfere with their campus experience, but since then, they have developed into what they are today. The Construction Notes pertaining to this earlier construction project were collected and published into book form.
Anyone who reads Construction Notes – or even takes a look at the length of each e-mail – will notice Mlyniec’s clear passion for construction, architecture, history and urbanism. These interests sprouted from a young age. Mlyniec, growing up in suburban Chicago, would take the train downtown to admire some of America’s greatest urban architecture. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on perspective) he did not pursue this interest academically, instead opting to attend Georgetown Law. Graduating in 1970, he was remarkably hired three years later.
Mlyniec worked out of the then brand-new McDonough Hall. In addition to running his prestigious clinic, he found himself on the committee overseeing campus construction, beginning with the expansion to McDonough Hall. This reignited his interest in buildings, and he began channeling increasing amounts of time into learning about campus construction. For the Hotung and Capitol Crossing project, Mlyniec’s genuine interest in the construction process has been an asset. As Georgetown Law’s liaison with the Capitol Crossing team, his voice is taken as seriously as any other during the frequent meetings on the project that he attends. Mlyniec does not have an engineering degree, but he listens to and learns from the engineers working on the project. Indeed, all of the staff have been very forthcoming with Mlyniec, both in terms of the project itself and for help writing Construction Notes.
Construction Notes themselves, according to Mlyniec, take approximately 40 hours per Note to write. As evidenced by the source list at the bottom of each e-mail, the Notes are extensively and professionally researched, and Mlyniec prefers drafting and rewriting a given Note multiple times to get it just right. The notes, sent via e-mail but also available on the Construction Notes blog, have many readers outside of the Law Center, including many complete outsiders.
In addition to notes about concrete, cranes, or how to move a synagogue dating from 1876, many of the Construction Notes discuss the history of the East End – the neighborhood that Georgetown Law now occupies – and the history of the District of Columbia more broadly. Mlyniec spoke and has written extensively about the effect that the routing of I-395 on the area, serving as a barrier between Capitol Hill and Chinatown. When Georgetown Law constructed McDonough Hall in the 1970s, the environs – now occupied by Williams Library, Gewirz, and the Hotung complex – consisted of a Salvation Army, a carryout restaurant, and several abandoned townhouses.
Mlyniec is optimistic about the effect that Capitol Crossing will have on the area, believing it will usher in a new, revitalizing urbanism to the area – the kind of revitalization that Georgetown Law believed it would have when it opened its doors in the area but failed to materialize.
The development will feature 5 mixed-use properties covering 2.2 million square feet of usable space. While tenants are not yet committed, the addition of walkable space (re)connecting Capitol Hill and Chinatown, now dominated by Union Station and the Verizon Center, respectively, will accelerate growth in the surrounding areas.
Mlyniec’s passion for the project, for construction, for buildings, and for Washington, DC shines through even more strongly in person than it does in his e-mails. This is especially impressive given that this passion, manifest in a serious research and writing commitment, comes alongside an incredible legal career, which alone could be the subject of another article.
The project won’t be fully completed for years. The estimated completion date is 2020. In my experience, construction deadlines are among the most uncertain things around. However, I do know that one thing is certain. Wally Mlyniec, from his office deep in the heart of the campus he has undoubtedly physically and professionally shaped, will keep us updated, providing an absurd yet welcome level of detail about topics we did not even know we wanted to know about.