Giant gym makes locals’ heads swim

In only its second week of operation, Cary Street Gym attracted the highest number of users for a facility at VCU on Jan. 19, but for some Oregon Hill residents the new facility merely picked the scab of a 42-year-old wound.

Much of the opposition to the gym’s building was voiced by the Oregon Hill Neighborhood Association and on its corresponding neighborhood news blog, oregonhill.net. Former OHNA President Scott Burger, who started the Web site with the help of John Murden and rvanews.com, stated in an e-mail that the OHNA was aware of plans for a new student recreational center for some time before it was ever officially announced.

“The association had (no) objections to the 2002 VCU Master Plan,” Burger stated. “which included a small natatorium at the corner of W. Cary and Cherry streets on property that the university had owned for some time.”

According to Burger, in 2006 the OHNA became aware of plans for a larger facility that would branch further into Oregon Hill despite a public promise by former VCU President Eugene Trani in a July 1994 Richmond Times-Dispatch article .

The article, “VCU Picks Site, Engineering School Deal is Sought,” quoted Trani: “It is not my intention to recommend to the board expansion south of Cary Street into Oregon Hill. That’s my intention not only for the Engineering School but other projects as well, other than what we already have south of Cary Street. I’ve said all along I’m not moving facilities into Oregon Hill.”

“In this particular instance there’s a history here that tends to shape some of the Oregon Hill residents’ perception of VCU,” said John Bennett, the senior vice president for Finance and Administration.

Bennett said the conflict started in 1990 when VCU had plans to expand south into Oregon Hill under Trani. However, with the Oregon Hill residents’ opposition, Trani decided to move north on Broad Street.

“In this particular instance there are a few Oregon Hill residents, very vocal, who think that the (Cary Street Gym) as it sits right now, violates their understanding,” Bennett said. “We have a different view because the Master Plan shows a recreation facility, albeit a smaller one on that Cary and Cherry site. So that’s really what the conflict was about.”

Bennett said any time VCU plans a facility on the edge of campus, VCU administration makes presentations to the neighborhood associations to keep them informed.

Tom Diehl, the director of recreational sports, said it was an issue the university worked on closely with the OHNA through meetings.

“We worked very hard to minimize the impact we had on the facility,” Diehl said. “If you look at Cherry Street, on the outside of the building, it looks like town houses as opposed to a big building.”

According to Bennett, VCU ended up spending about $3 million to make the facility blend in more with the neighborhood.

Diehl said the red brick facility that once housed Cary Street Gym was built at the turn of the century. During construction it was called Building A, now the fitness center that houses the climbing wall and the service desk. The rest, Diehl said, is new construction.

“There were two buildings behind the building. There was a carriage house and there was a stable,” Diehl said. “We used to occupy the stable for our outdoor adventure program. That building was dilapidated and basically turned over to us by the city and we renovated it and used it for that purpose.”

Further into construction, VCU chose the building that was in better shape, the carriage house, and moved it behind the Mary Frances Youth Center. The stable VCU received had a collapsed roof, was deemed unusable and subsequently torn down.

“Every time we build a project on the edge of our campus we consult the neighborhood association,” Bennett said. “We try and accommodate them, we can’t always accommodate them but we always listen to them and we always give them an opportunity.”

Burger stated there were alternatives to the recreational center location, which VCU officials ignored, including a location on Broad Street. Another option would have been to build a smaller facility.

“OHNA and neighborhood residents sent letters and met with many public officials (after learning about the plans for a larger facility) in order to bring attention and oversight,” Burger stated.

OHNA recently sent a letter to the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee, which requested an investigation of VCU’s real estate dealings.

Burger’s efforts to preserve Oregon Hill included a meeting with President Michael Rao. Burger said the long-term trust needed for the community relationship must come from a solid compact that will assure VCU will not encroach into Oregon Hill any further.

“The Board of Visitors must make … this contract real.” Burger stated. “We would like to continue to meet, with this agreement as the goal.”

According to Burger, OHNA is waiting to hear from VCU about how it will fulfill its promise that the new facility would be made available for use by neighborhood residents.

At the monthly OHNA meeting on Tuesday, VCU Dean of Students Reuban Rodriguez and Brian Ohlinger, the associate vice president for VCU’s facilities management, led a presentation about the Cary Street Gym. According the Rodriguez and Ohlinger, VCU will be offering a special rate of $23.37/month for Oregon Hill residents at the Cary Street and MCV gyms. The rate would have to be paid in full at the time of membership registration and is subject to chance depending on next year’s rate structure.

Bennett said VCU made pledges to the Oregon Hill community that they intend to honor. One pledge promises VCU will apply for national historic register status for the city auditorium and the other would grant the Oregon Hill residents membership at preferred rates. This was to be worked out at the OHNA meeting Tuesday.

“Neighborhood associations don’t speak with one voice,” Bennett said. “There are lots of opinions but we try and (remain) sensitive to the impact that we have on surrounding neighborhoods. There are a handful of people … in Oregon Hill who will continue to be unhappy about it but I think the bulk of the neighborhood, we never heard from.”

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