An empire state of mind

August Wade
Staff Columnist

Illustration by Christine Fouron

Silver wire fences, heavy machinery and concrete adorn the city blocks. Odd bits of modern and contemporary architecture take root where brick-face real estate once stood. What was once flat terrain becomes tall, both in structure and in power.

The growth of VCU has been evident on Richmond’s landscape, from the visible to the invisible, from real estate to demographics. In the last four years, I’ve seen surface parking lots evolve into multiple-story buildings and a fairly mixed demographic grow more diverse.

Without a doubt, the relationship between the university and the city has been symbiotic to a larger degree, helping to provide Richmond with the kind of resurgence that Mayor Dwight Jones discussed in his brief State of the City address earlier this year. The university has breathed life into dead areas and seized opportunities to work with the community.

It is the fear of some, however, that the university, with its 2020 Master Plan, is becoming too big too fast, especially for the area’s spacial limitations.

The university’s expansion has also been an act of encroachment into neighborhoods, harming residential diversity, creating hostility and resentment between university and residents, threatening community involvement and possibly negatively affecting the willingness of community groups to work with students and the university.

Recently, an open letter to the university’s administration from the Oregon Hill Neighborhood Association stated concerns regarding VCU’s acquisition of a property (9 W. Cary St.) outside of the stated boundaries of VCU’s own 2020 Master Plan. The letter, spurred by a OHNA vote last month to formally request that VCU adhere to its plan, is available online at OHNA’s blog, but this instance isn’t the first spot of friction between VCU and neighboring communities.

For local residents, whether they are former VCU students or not, VCU’s reach isn’t simply a matter of the administration reneging on its word — it’s a sign of untrustworthiness and incongruity.

To be sure, an institution instructing over 30,000 students, from non-degree seeking students to Ph.D. programs, cannot be contained on just two campuses and two handfuls of buildings. In order to provide students with quality facilities and resources, as well as keep up with student growth, the acquisition of certain properties has been necessary and beneficial.

The rate of VCU’s growth, however, is cause for concern because the administration presumes much in the way of what is necessary for the student body and too heavily allows what a fairly fickle populace — potential and current students — want to dictate what they do. What students want isn’t always compatible with what’s best for the community and while the administration does take the community into consideration with their decisions, the wealth of the established communities pale in comparison to the potential influx of student revenue.

Housing, for example, is always a concern for students, particularly freshmen. To gauge student demand, VCU sends out surveys polling students and then meets their demands by providing what students asked for. A VCU housing market analysis from 2013 showed a demand for “more than 1,300 beds on the Monroe Park Campus and more than 400 beds on the MCV Campus.”

It’s encouraging to see an administration being receptive to student input, but the act also seems equally overly responsible; students should be encouraged to become independent of the university, especially in the realm of housing, toward their upperclassmen years. Providing housing as freely as the administration does infantilizes students by removing the experience of seeking housing and transition into the “real world,” complete with the option of having bizarre housemates that might not also be students, or are students attending a different school.

That kind of monopoly, which both holds VCU students close by to campus and excludes them from experiencing life with a non-peer group is antithetical to the buzzword “diversity.” In contrast, local neighborhoods provide low-cost housing options for students that are nearby, but not the product of a well-meaning, but overbearing university.

It should be noted that VCU prices their housing to be competitive with local rates, further demonstrating that they are in-touch with the student body, but the “competitive” aspect of the pricing is prohibitive and therefore makes on-campus housing inaccessible for students.

For the proposed 2015-2016 rates, the lowest cost for academic yearlong housing (a traditional double at MCV) comes out to about $600 a month, with the lowest amount for a 11.5 month lease coming in at $650 for a single in a four person apartment. Anyone remotely familiar with housing in Richmond can explain how exorbitant those prices are compared to the housing equivalent in any of the surrounding neighborhoods. VCU’s attempt at competitive pricing also demonstrates the way a public university can put stress on the surrounding community, albeit unintentionally. A further discussion regarding how the university’s housing overstretch can affect house prices, taxes and other factors are also warranted.

The university’s real estate grab and presence also affects the aesthetics of Richmond. Consider the contemporary homes popping up in mismatched neighborhoods or the construction of luxury apartments, whether they’re near campus, in Jackson Ward, down Floyd or toward Willow Lawn. The buildings, whether VCU-owned or not, are empowered and influenced by the university’s stretch, even if only through a curious “Is that part of VCU?” by visitors.

This kind of gentrification is about aesthetics and “cleaning up the neighborhood,” without ever addressing why the neighborhood was “dirty” to begin with. When we use the word “sketchy” to describe an area, we’re pricing the place on its surface aspects. That word, “sketchy,” travels from mouth to mouth, ear to ear, solidifying itself amongst outsiders and ensuring the death of that community and a decrease in diversity.

There’s a larger aesthetic-guided and community-orientated point being made: Richmond, like any city, is known for its historicism and character. While beneficial for the purpose of (temporary) job growth and beautification, the deluge of new construction projects have eroded the character of particular areas.

More toward the business end, the expansion has resulted in a duller local pallete, as food trend after food trend cause repetitive restaurant startups to compete with each other for student affection. Corporate food chains, invited by the university, add to this blandness, further eroding and pushing the more unique and character-driven aspects of Richmond away from the university.

The Master Plan takes style into account, stating that “style must compliment appropriate building type” and that the “VCU Administration should collaborate with the university’s selected architects in designing buildings which are stylistically complementary and enriching to the campuses.” The concern here is that, though it is apparent the university is concerned with the historic image of Richmond and appropriately adapting, many of the aspects regarding “adapting” can be sidestepped when an area is gentrified.

When a comparatively wealthy, enterprising force breaks a deal, sees itself as the creator of your municipality and acts in a cavalier manner, it’s easy to see why residents are so vehemently opposed to VCU. Declaring our homecoming theme “empire” didn’t help to prove VCU’s benevolent.

The actions of the administration, in many manners, are not representative of how a university, bent on inclusion, community involvement and being a positive force, conducts themselves. VCU’s 2020 Master Plan is an incredible, expensive and thought-out document with clear intentions and limitations. It’s not some monstrous attempt to buy out and VCU-ify the city. In many ways, it’s the opposite because of the attempt to improve the adjacency of VCU buildings.

At the same time, with the plethora of construction and renovation left to be done in the next five years, it’s hard to reconcile my own excitement at seeing my university evolve into a massive, innovative block in the center of Richmond with sympathy for the plight of those who will suffer for the wants of an empire.

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