First, by expanding eastward onto the blocks immediately south of The Jefferson Hotel and bounded by Belvidere, Adams, Main and the Downtown Expressway, VCU steers clear of the historic and mostly residential Fan District, Oregon Hill and Carver. Each of these neighborhoods at some time has viewed VCU (justifiably) as a physical threat. Of course, current and rising real estate prices in these areas attest to how VCU’s presence has ultimately stabilized and dramatically enhanced the three neighborhoods.
Also, by moving eastward, VCU can reweave a tattered part of the center city. While a number of highly viable small businesses must be relocated (or better yet, integrated in the development plan), the tract is mostly a weedy, unsightly, urban netherworld of vacant lots and surface parking lots.
There are, however, a few structures in the path of progress whose preservation would add beauty and meaning to the mix. The former T.B. Hicks Delivery Stable at 103 S. Jefferson St., which served as the “garage” for The Jefferson during the horse-and-carriage days, has lunette windows and a handsome stepped gable. The half-dozen Italianate, attached, commercial buildings on the 300 block of West Cary Street also deserve careful consideration for preservation as links with Monroe Ward’s past.
And although the five or six blocks under consideration are unlovely, they are near some of downtown’s most important and evocative blocks and buildings. Tree-lined West Franklin Street, The Jefferson, old Second Baptist Church, the Ellen Glascow house and the scattered row houses and century-old commercial buildings nearby should only be enhanced by new construction to the south, which will create urban density and physical continuity.
While the plan is still in its infancy, there are a number of considerations that VCU’s architects and planners might consider. Importantly, there is equity in good architecture. Stanford, Duke, University of Virginia, University of Richmond and smaller institutions from Sweet Briar to Williams know that beautiful campuses attract students and faculty and become icons. The new campus in Monroe Ward should be permanent, distinctly urban and send a message of architectural excellence. The occasion does not call for mere in-fill (like the buildings the university has erected along West Broad Street). Planners might examine the Columbia University campus on Manhattan’s Upper West Side or Trinity College in the middle of Dublin for inspiration in how an educational institution can respect existing streets and environs while creating a spectacular campus.
The vacuous site offers designers considerable freedom, but the existing classical architectural legacy in Monroe Ward should be considered for context, scale and detailing. One specific source that might be consulted is a general architectural plan for Monroe Ward that was developed by the London-based Prince of Wales’s Institute for Architecture. In the summer of 1997, working in cooperation with Historic Richmond Foundation, this international group of talented students did schematic plans for every block in this area.
Among other considerations:
• The site has a hilly topography. Components of the project should respect this rolling landscape and use it to its advantage.
• The Belvidere Street frontage near Monroe Park will be critical from an architectural standpoint. There is a tremendous opportunity to create a sorely needed urban wall along this corridor. The Landmark Theater, Grace and Holy Trinity Church, Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Prestwould Apartments and VCU’s Gladding Residence Center ring Monroe Park to set a high standard and create a virtual outdoor museum of architecture.
• It is also along Belvidere Street that the opportunity exists for the new campus to connect with VCU’s academic campus.
• With new frontage on Belvidere Street, university and city officials must tackle the challenges of Monroe Park and give it the attention it needs. New York University has long embraced Washington Square in Greenwich Village.
• How pedestrians cross frenetic Belvidere/U.S. Route 1 also will be an issue. Please, forget skywalks. A tunnel might be interesting.
• On West Main, across from The Jefferson Hotel, VCU might consider placing certain commercial activities, bookstores, eateries and coffee bars, etc., that would serve both town and gown.
For much of its history, Virginia Commonwealth University has tried to play good neighbor, restoring old townhouses along Franklin Street, moving into churches as congregations moved on and building huge structures on West Broad Street that reflect the vernacular, commercial architecture of early 20th-century Richmond. But VCU’s exciting expansion plans call for something bolder. Here, in one of the oldest parts of the city, is a historic opportunity for the university to expand in a bold, signature way. If it is done well, the dividends will flow in the decades to come. One of the best lessons that VCU can teach is how to build with excellence and sensitivity in the middle of an American city. S
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