Mayor tours West Hospital

Richmond Mayor Rudolph C. McCollum Jr. toured VCU’s West Hospital nearly two weeks ago and found low ceilings, inadequate lighting and poor ventilation.

“This was my first time in West Hospital,” McCollum said, “and I have no arguments with the university about their belief that this hospital is no longer suitable for medical or academic purposes.”

The tour, he said, gave him a firsthand look at these problems, but he suggested that it still may be possible to use West Hospital for offices or apartments.

Shortly after VCU’s Board of Visitors approved a master-site plan on Aug. 12, which calls for the demolition of West Hospital and two other medical buildings, the mayor proposed a moratorium to the Richmond City Council to halt the demolition of state-owned buildings in Richmond. McCollum also announced the city would begin a search for alternative sites, and an inventory of its public buildings would be “in the city’s best interest.”

Meanwhile, McCollum met with VCU President Eugene P. Trani and other city and university officials to discuss the university’s planned expansion of its medical campus. The two leaders agreed that McCollum should tour West Hospital to assess the situation.

Not only the mayor but local conservationist groups have insisted that a private developer could renovate the building, which McCollum said would be only “feasible if the site issue for the medical center is addressed.”

During the tour with the mayor, Paul Timmreck, VCU’s senior vice president for finance and administration, told the mayor no vacant land exists next to the Medical Center campus and that MCV requires instructional and lab space, not housing or offices.

“The growth and residential needs are on the Monroe Park campus,” he said, “and that is why the Broad Street apartments and other housing have been built.”

Nevertheless, McCollum said he reserves comment on the demolition until the search for alternative sites ends one week before the Nov. 22 city council meeting. Mark Strickler, director of community development, and Brook Heart, are working on the review and toured the hospital with the mayor, Timmreck and others. Heart said that no new locations had been found yet.

At the Nov. 22 meeting city council members could vote to update the city’s master plan for downtown, which includes development projects and improvements for Richmond, but it does not make a direct statement about West Hospital.

“The plan makes reference to the fact that there are some historically significant buildings downtown but does not deal with what will happen to them,” McCollum said after the tour. “A stronger statement may need to be made, and that is one of the reasons I wanted to come down here.”

Mary Broughton, director of planning and design for VCU, guided the mayor and others through the art deco hospital to point out the major obstacles to renovation.

“We tried our best to make the mechanical system work, but it just won’t,” Broughton said. “The windows are ajar in the frames, and asbestos inside wall cavities will be extraordinarily expensive to remove.”

Furthermore, Broughton explained that further renovations would alter the appearance of the structure. She said replacing the air-conditioning system might help ventilate the building, but metal brackets imbedded in the structure to secure existing window units could cause substantial damage if removed.

McCollum said he is pleased with the dialogue surrounding the issue and that a meaningful process should be in place for determining the fate of public buildings.

Don Gehring, VCU’s vice president for governmental relations and health policy, said the Department of Historic Resources approved demolition of West Hospital in 1992. He said it was more difficult to reach an agreement with the resources department because VCU did not have the preservation record it has today.

Gehring said it would take at least five years before the hospital building could be razed.

“We would need the $150 million for the new medical school before there is a request to demolish West Hospital,” he said. “That is why there is much to do about very little.”

Kathleen Miltner, 19, a sophomore VCU nursing student, said she was unaware of the controversy regarding West Hospital where she has studied and trained.

“We would love to save the hospital, but it’s filthy,” she said, “the ceilings are low and the lighting is terrible.”

McCollum said that VCU students should not worry about him obstructing the construction of a new medical center.

“I more than anyone recognize the importance of the medical center and what it has done and will continue to do for the citizens of Richmond,” he said. “All we are talking about is where this will take place, not whether it will take place.”

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