The gilded age of VCU: 2005-2020

John Richardson


VCU is Virginia’s fasting growing four-year institution, but as it grows further into Richmond, public backlash grows as well.
“Richmond be warned, VCU does not care what citizens and residents want!” declared an Oregon Hill newsletter, and their warning was not without cause. When President Eugene Trani created the “VCU 2020” expansion plan, he submitted it for state review without approval or feedback from the surrounding community. When VCU broke ground for the first time in two neighborhoods – Oregon Hill and Monroe Ward – VCU campus began its long-term expansion plan, and its public relations nightmare.
The most notable public offenses caused by VCU’s expansion include moving the historic Jacob House, tearing down Green Alley’s historic livery stable, building a Shockoe Bottom parking lot over a slave burial ground that dates back to Gabriel’s Slave Rebellion in 1800, and most recently supporting the city’s plan to entirely close Monroe Park for renovations next year (and the consequential displacement of Richmond’s homeless population) has all reinforced VCU’s stigma as the local big bad wolf, coming to blow your house down, even if it’s just a blanketed refrigerator box.
I think what scares many is that VCU seems to exist in a different economy as its expansion started as the recession emerged and remains unaffected to this day. Its student body has gained a quarter of the size it was 10 years ago while Virginia’s population growth rate dropped to half of what it was between 2000 and 2005. It seems as the recession deflates property values and causes businesses to downsize, VCU inversely inflates its property value with structural upgrades, grows in size as it buys new property, and all-around acts as if it’s “too big to fail”. And who’s to say it’s not? It hasn’t failed yet.
VCU is a business, and like any business venture, VCU anticipates its massive expansions to create massive profit, and anticipates little else, certainly not the destruction of historical sites with modern architecture, the suffocation of local businesses with Ram-Bucks and corporate partnerships (i.e. Starbucks, McDonalds, Pepsi), or the tainting of its own academic reputation by necessitating lower admission standards for higher acceptance rates to fill the new facilities.
Personally, I cannot recall a time when there weren’t numerous large-scale construction projects in progress on campus, or when there wasn’t a new property opened on campus when I returned for a new semester. It is as if VCU had completed another trip around the Monopoly board, upgrading its buildings, buying every property it comes across, and waiting for people to come around once again to stay and pay.
As long as Virginians pay the tuition (which rose over 20 percent last year), VCU will expand straight into 2020, by which time VCU might be feeling strong enough to draw up another expansion plan. I for one hope it doesn’t. But if VCU should insist on more capital ventures, it should rather purchase and renovate abandoned properties situated between VCU buildings within the campus. That, or vertically expand onto existing university buildings. This would greatly please Richmond citizens who don’t enjoy their neighborhoods being filled with buildings they aren’t permitted to use.

Secondly, by filling the property gaps on campus, a closer-knit community would emerge and foster a collective school spirit. Maybe it’s just me, but VCU campus presently feels like a large community college instead of a large college community. And lastly, commuting from class to class in under 10 minutes is currently difficult enough without campus spreading any further. A tight, unified campus is more practical, more efficient, and would go a long way to combat VCU’s negative stigma as a colonizing force in Richmond.

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