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King of the Hill

VCU plans to push its empire into Oregon Hill, despite its promises.

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Oregon Hill fights VCU plan." This April 9 Times-Dispatch headline, and the ensuing article about the university's planned encroachment into the historic neighborhood to its south, was a throwback to 17 years earlier.

Didn't Virginia Commonwealth University in 1990 turn toward Broad Street and promise to stay out of the architecturally and historically rich Oregon Hill? Isn't this tough old survivor of a neighborhood listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register? Doesn't the current VCU master plan show planned expansion while leaving Oregon Hill's historic buildings intact? Didn't recent plans for an enlarged VCU recreation center and "Lobs & Lessons," an outreach youth tennis center, depict the project extending east and west of the Cary Street Gym, not south into Oregon Hill?

Now, VCU officials say that they want to demolish two buildings, both good-sized 19th-century stables (that have been successfully adapted to new uses) and push the recreation center onto their footprint, encroaching in a major way into Oregon Hill.

Understandably, many folks are enraged.

VCU officials say they want to build southward because Oregon Hill representatives didn't want South Linden Street (to the west of the Cary Street Gym) closed.

Some Oregon Hill residents say that neither plan is good. Of course, they were given the real estate version of Sophie's Choice. One was to endorse VCU's plan to close yet another historic street and build a structure that would obscure the prominent profile of one of the campus's best buildings, the stolid Cary Street Gym (a former city-market-turned-city-auditorium). The other given option was to build atop Green Alley to the south of the gym, demolish the two historic stables and erect a large addition that by definition would be out of scale to the neighborhood.

The most publicized specific component of the expansion thus far has been the Mary and Frances Youth Center to house "Lobs & Lessons," a VCU tennis program for area children. On Dec. 8, tennis pros Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf and James Blake joined Mayor Doug Wilder, VCU President Eugene Trani and a few handfuls of children for the groundbreaking of the center, funded with a $1.5 million donation from Elizabeth and Michael Frazier (he the chairman and CEO of Genworth Financial Inc.).

The other half of the expansion would house a swimming pool (the university is planning to demolish the Franklin Street Gymnasium, which currently houses a pool).

The trouble is that VCU has apparently proposed only two options. Neither of them would pass muster if presented in a sophomore paper in an urban studies class. It's pretty elementary: You don't build upon city streets, you don't tear down buildings on the Virginia Register of Historic Places and you don't encroach upon a neighborhood where it has taken almost a generation to restore trust.

First, what's the rush? VCU has existed for decades without a full range of recreation options. Its students know that when they enroll. They do know that they are coming to an urban place surrounded by enticing old neighborhoods, districts that reek of authenticity — something rarer and rarer to find in an American city.

Of course VCU wants to expand its recreational amenities. But this proposed expansion, even if it wasn't on a designated historic site, would be too intensive. With plans under way to build more VCU sports and recreation facilities at The Diamond, why not make this project part of that thrust? Join forces with advocates of a natatorium that has already been discussed for the Boulevard.

But if the pool must go near the Cary Street Gym (and it makes perfect sense that the university wants some sports facilities on campus), for heaven's sake, build the "Lobs & Lessons" complex somewhere else. This feel-good program could go anywhere in town. The university can hardly afford the luxury of giving up precious real estate for outdoor tennis courts — and for a nonresident population of the university.

Wouldn't it be more altruistic to put the "Lobs & Lessons" complex at Battery Park to shore up a flood-besieged, but historic, tennis complex? This would inject tremendous energy into an area that could use the boost.

VCU's "Lobs & Lessons" Web site describes its youth program as "using put-ups instead of put-downs, getting along with others and paying attention to directions."

Strangely, the university has failed to heed these very things in its handling of the Cary Street Gym expansion. It is "putting down" Oregon Hill by suggesting that the neighborhood's historic fabric doesn't matter. In so doing it is not "getting along with others." And it is not "paying attention to directions" — its own directions — to stay out of Oregon Hill and to adhere to the vision of its own master plan.

"Ground's been broken and a lot of money has been spent reworking the plans [to shift the expansion toward Oregon Hill]," a university official said recently.

That's too bad. But tennis centers and swimming pools can go in a number of places. There is only one Oregon Hill and it is fragile.

To the argument that the threatened stables aren't worth saving, well, that's not the university's call to make. The structures are specifically listed as part of the designated historic district. Too often the argument is made that preservationists are hysterical and only show up at the 11th hour with placards. This was not the case here. The lines were drawn years ago and VCU should respect them.

If these old buildings are lost, it will be just a matter of time before more of Oregon Hill, like dominoes, falls as VCU marches farther southward toward the Downtown Expressway. S

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