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Power Player

If you take on VCU President Eugene Trani, you'd better be prepared.

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Dotts, executive director of the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods, and her preservationist crusaders are here because VCU's master plan includes tearing down the historic West Hospital, nursing education building and A.D. Williams Clinic. It seems unthinkable to Dotts that the landmark hospital anchoring East Broad Street downtown — a marvel in art deco brickwork and a reminder of MCV's rich history — would be earmarked for destruction so easily and painlessly.

But there is little debate or resistance, and the board of visitors approves the plan on this rainy Thursday morning.

"They don't belong to him, they belong to us," a frustrated Dotts says of the old buildings. Until the buildings are torn down, though, there's always a chance they could be saved, and Dotts vows to continue the fight to save West Hospital in the coming months, and possibly years.

"We're going to the governor, the General Assembly," Dotts says. "We will continue to raise the public's awareness."

But Dotts may be facing an impossible battle. She's up against a stronger, savvier Trani than the one who whimpered out of Oregon Hill in the early 1990s.

When Trani became VCU's president in 1990, he inherited a master plan that included extending the university south, throughout the old, working-class neighborhood of Oregon Hill. The fight he faced against residents of that neighborhood became his first public battle. Since then, he's morphed into a masterful chief executive, lobbyist and board-room commando.

Trani has a reputation as one of Richmond's power players. But few realize the depth of his political skills. In a year of extreme belt-tightening in the General Assembly, for example, other universities were forced to clamp their budgets and make do with less. Trani got more money than he asked for, including some $25 million just for VCU's Monroe campus extension.

For years, Trani has imposed his will on the General Assembly, where lawmakers regard him highly for his corporate approach to university spending. And regardless of the West Hospital issue, few deny Trani's gift of persuasion.

"When Gene decides he wants to express himself, he does it very effectively," says William H. Goodwin Jr., a multimillionaire Richmond businessman well known for manhandling a boardroom or two. "Gene Trani is an excellent, excellent speaker and salesman for what he wants to get done."

Even those on the other side agree.

"Love him or hate him, you can't dispute his effectiveness," says Don Charles, executive director of the Historic Richmond Foundation, which opposes tearing down West Hospital "as a matter of policy."

Trani's first meeting with the newly installed board of visitors is in the second-floor ballroom of the student commons. The board tables form a U-shape at the center of the room, with two long rows for the 16 board members and a short bridge at the front, where Trani and the rector sit before a large video screen.

Seats for the public are in the back and to the sides. The board tables are well-lit, while the lights are dimmed over the public seating. It has the effect of steering the energy of the entire room toward the president.

The meeting kicks off with a promotional video set to that music the kids love, "Hey Ya!" by Outkast, complete with pride-filled students rushing the floor at the Richmond Coliseum after a basketball game, dancing at Shafer Court, and learning oh-so valuable life skills in the classroom.

Trani has a pitch to make. Dotts & Co. sit quietly, not allowed to speak, watching Trani set up the kill. Not only will he win the board's approval, but he'll win their souls. And there's nothing they can do about it.

"The most important thing we care about is saving lives," Trani tells the board.

Trani sits during the entire presentation. He calmly embraces his critics. He holds up the flyer A.C.O.R.N. has been passing around, the one casting VCU as an evil surgeon about to dissect an unwitting patient. Trani says he doesn't like his options. He doesn't want to raze West Hospital. "This is not something I'm happy about," he says.

But in order to build a new state-of-the-art medical facility and nursing school, Trani says, the old buildings can't accommodate the latest in medical technology. So they all must go. Isn't there somewhere else the university can build? Yes and no. There is nothing suitable nearby, Trani says. And he wants to keep the MCV campus in one cohesive piece — the teaching and medical facilities together.

"The option we have is to replace [the old buildings] or lock them up and consider leaving downtown Richmond," Trani barks.

The weight of the statement drops down on the room. Trani leans forward, peers over the rims of his glasses with his brow raised, inviting a challenge. There are no takers. He has just spent the last half-hour running through the list of economic improvements VCU has sparked downtown.

That $100 million expansion along Broad Street jumpstarted $100 million in new retail development, he points out. Grace Street? Pornography and bullets were there before VCU. That wave of new apartments in Carver? You're welcome.

So what will it be: Saving lives or saving bricks?

Don't answer, not today. Trani takes his finger off the trigger. Just approve the master plan and the rest will be hashed out later, he tells them. There's no money to tear it down now anyhow. The board is being asked to approve just the master plan, the more immediate portion of which involves nearly $200 million for the Monroe Park Campus Addition, anchored by a new business school and Adcenter, along four city blocks east of Belvidere between Main and Canal streets. The first priority is getting the Monroe campus completed by 2007, in time for the Queen's arrival.

The board votes. The deal is done.

"As Gene said, you simply cannot have a first-class medical program based on that facility. So I fully support the plan," says J. Alfred Broaddus Jr., the former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, who was recently appointed to the board of visitors by Gov. Mark Warner.

Broaddus recalls thinking just how masterfully Trani ran the meeting, controlling the tone and flow of information. After attending hundreds of meetings run by Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, and the towering, intimidating Paul Volcker before him — Volcker, at 6-feet-8, was known for his deep voice and giant cigars — Broaddus says neither has anything on Trani.

"I don't know that I've seen them run any better than Gene does it," Broaddus says. "While I had seen him in action before, I remember thinking that he really handled that meeting very, very effectively."

Too effectively for Dotts' liking. Winning the board's approval is a big victory for Trani. VCU's master plan, called VCU2020, involves $1 billion in new construction downtown. And most of the work being done is on property that VCU already owns or controls. The university's biggest obstacles will be money and public opinion.

The battle-tested Dotts is mobilizing her troops. Equally intent, she isn't intimidated by Trani's laser-beam glare, the near-threatening eyes, the respectfully annoyed tone of voice.

"It's really what we expected," says Dotts, leaning against the wall in the hallway outside the board of visitors' meeting.

Can Trani be beaten? He's lost before.

Charles Pool, an Oregon Hill activist who played a key role in keeping VCU out of Oregon Hill in the early 1990s, says public opinion is a powerful thing. He and his activists rolled back Trani and VCU by showing that it was cheaper and more economically beneficial to push VCU to the north, where the university could do more good by buying and building on largely vacant sections of Broad Street.

"I think they will be victorious," Pool says of Dotts and those who want to save West Hospital. "I think [VCU] tried to do this in a backdoor manner. They didn't have a real public debate on this. It is too obvious that the nursing building and the hospital are too valuable architecturally to be demolished."

There is no specific timetable for building the new medical facilities, and there will be plenty of opportunity to debunk specific pieces of the master plan between now and 2010. Trani told the board of visitors as much.

Getting the board's approval for the general vision, however, is significant in that the onus now shifts to preservationists such as Dotts to derail the plan, not vice versa.

Known for her sophisticated, stiff-back demeanor, Dotts, a striking woman with intense eyes, is going up against her toughest opponent yet. She may have effectively mobilized the troops against those pushing for a new ballpark in Shockoe Bottom, but this will be different.

This is Trani. S



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