Revitalization of the University is taking too long

Shannon Hays
Contributing Columnist

Illustration by Daniel Torraca

The revitalization efforts taken by VCU will greatly benefit the city — if they’re ever finished. Revitalization has been the center of discussion for a few years now, but there aren’t enough physical changes in the VCU area to attest to such a plan. However, small businesses are relocating in hopes of a peak in business after the completion of the Institute of Contemporary Art and other new facilities in the future.

VCU’s Community Engagement Grants provide about $20,000 to support community partnerships. However, $20,000 is not enough to engage in successful relationships for revitalizing the area. VCU lacks business support which is causing the revitalization process to take so long. The flaw with the revitalization process underway currently is the lack of sponsors for the properties surrounding VCU.

The expenses for renovating or building around VCU are extremely high. The Institute for Contemporary Art has raised $32.9 million of the $35 million goal so far. The funding has slowed the building process all together. The ICA originally said it would be completed in 2015 on the VCU Projects webpage, but the projected date is now 2016. Anybody can donate money to the building, and campaigns have been attempted to raise the remainder through sponsoring Ginko trees in the sculpture garden or interior galleries. The success of the funding is essential in a building that will revitalize an existing area. 

Mayor Dwight C. Jones proposed Loving RVA last year, which included a controversial baseball stadium planned to be built in Shockoe Bottom. This plan had the business backing that VCU is lacking, so it moved more quickly to reach a vote at the city council meeting last year. Other than the baseball stadium, there was a proposed Hyatt hotel with a “full-sized Kroger on the street level.” If it had not been for the slave burial ground issue, the plan would probably be underway already. It was just bad luck that the land chosen for the stadium had such a significant past in comparison to other locations.

Back in 2012 the Richmond Times-Dispatch talked with VCU President Michael Rao about what was necessary for a successful revitalization process, VCU “would need to use public-private partnerships to accomplish parts of the plan and to do so should ‘leverage a lot of the good will that it’s already built in town’.” Unfortunately, I don’t think the partnerships are strong enough as they are. The university already has the library renovations, the West Grace Street dorms and the ICA underway; it seems like the plate is full.

Urban planning students in 2013 created a vision of the city in 2020 called the Master Site Plan, which called for VCU acquisition of many properties on the “Broad Street Corridor” for academic use. However, the plan does not mention the impact of adding businesses in and around campus. What needs to be planned in addition to art institutes is department stores and grocery stores that are convenient. The nearest Target or Walmart is a 15-minute drive away. I understand the desire for small businesses to thrive, but without the bigger businesses present, customers just go to the major shopping areas and away from local small businesses.

VCU needs to take the Shockoe Bottom stadium dilemma into account when planning to build new buildings around campus in their revitalization mission. Before the campus Walmart was announced, VCU did a study on the benefit of rehabilitating current structures on the economy. The results were overwhelming, but with the help of tax dollars the revitalization contributed “an estimated $3.9 billion to the state’s economic health” from 1997 to 2012. Many critics of revitalization forget the opportunities that will be provided in the future. This process is a long-term investment that is necessary to maintain a thriving culture.

If VCU and partnering businesses added any significant amount of money to the revitalization process the results would be visible more quickly than doing so on their own. The process takes time, but with help from private companies it could be accelerated and mistakes could be avoided by looking at other revitalization efforts.

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