In his recent review of the new Virginia Commonwealth University Student Recreational Center (“Miracle on Cary Street,” Arts & Culture, March 31), Edwin Slipek Jr. focused solely on the building's aesthetics, without reference to function, cost or context. While that is his choice as a writer (and I might add that I do enjoy his writing), I can't help but believe that on some level he is doing a disservice in not fully informing readers.
The historic City Auditorium building and its supporting stable buildings were well preserved and renovated and had a long, colorful history before being destroyed or incorporated into this latest university behemoth. They played host to various endeavors and purposes that speak to Richmond's development as a city.
As Slipek had written previously, the Oregon Hill Neighborhood Association opposed the VCU proposal for a number of reasons, including the demolishing of one of the stables and the further expansion into the Oregon Hill National Historic District, which contradicted President Eugene Trani's previous public promise.
Another one of the reasons that the association opposed the proposal was that the university did not look at alternative locations for its recreational facilities and a better use for that site. VCU still owns whole blocks of parking lots and less historic buildings along Grace Street and elsewhere that could have easily been repurposed for a 24-hour student recreational center, something that Oregon Hill residents always wanted for university students. It could have been fitted inside the campus lines rather than intruding (yet again) upon a historic, largely residential neighborhood. In addition, the City Auditorium building could have easily been returned to one of its previous incarnations as an indoor farmers' market. Think about that: Richmond could have had a beautiful pedestrian market center, not unlike Washington's Eastern Market.
Beyond the opportunity costs, there are the actual costs. While Oregon Hill residents wanted students to have the recreational facilities they deserve, many of us were shocked that the university was willing to spend so much on this project when it was clear that economic recession was upon us. This project would have been much less expensive at one of the alternative locations that VCU refused to consider, which is part of the reason that the association asked state agencies to investigate. I sincerely hope students and community members enjoy the new gym, as we'll be paying more and more for it and other VCU administration decisions. I also hope the university does more to make the facility more green and energy efficient.
The main objections to the proposal were its overall mass as well as its impact on traffic and parking. I am sad to see Slipek joining the university in disregarding them. This huge new structure swallowed the historic and useful Green Alley, and all we are left with is a lackluster plaque that does not even explain who Mr. Green was. The building dwarfs the modest two-story wood frame houses next to it. As predicted by neighborhood residents but dismissed by university officials, parking and traffic has worsened considerably in the area with the gigantic structure that has been built, bringing to bear the safety concerns that the neighborhood association warned about. Poor little one-way Cherry Street, one of the remaining egresses from the neighborhood, is gridlocked often. Neighbors have described the situation as if a Wal-Mart was dropped onto the block without any consideration for traffic and parking consequences.
My term as president of the neighborhood association will be mostly associated with this controversial project. I knew all along that I never had the money, time, energy or even supporters that the university public relations and president's offices had at their disposal. I tried to give people some perspective as well as do my duty of standing up for neighborhood concerns. My hope is that at the very least, the opposition to the project will be noted and will discourage the university from ever encroaching into Oregon Hill again.
Scott Burger, former president
Oregon Hill Neighborhood Association