By Liz Coston
Like many urban universities, space is at a premium at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). The main campus is bound on all sides by residential neighborhoods and the medical campus sits in the heart of downtown Richmond, where there is so little room for growth that buildings have been demolished and rebuilt to maximize space. The VCU ONE Master Plan, approved by the Board of Visitors in 2019, was designed to align VCU’s strategic plan with the current and future physical landscape of the campus. VCU ONE addresses current spatial limitations through the expansion of the university’s facilities, as well as connecting the mile and a half distance between the main campus and the medical campus.[i] The ONE Plan proposes connecting the campuses both through the acquisition of properties and via increased transportation access between the two campuses.
However, the expansion of VCU’s campus is in many ways at odds with the goals of the university’s strategic plan, Quest 2025, which calls for the university to “elevate VCU’s contributions to the region’s economic and cultural vitality” as well as to “continue to address inequities to strengthen the health and well-being of Greater Richmond residents.”[ii] While the university thinks about its development in terms of budget, space, and student enrollment, local residents often view the university as an active gentrifier.[iii] And like most gentrification, Richmond’s lower-income Black residents predominantly feel the impacts of VCU’s expansion. Situated in the former capital of the Confederacy while being a majority-minority institution, VCU claims that is committed to addressing inequities in the city and should be especially sensitive to issues of race; however it has largely failed to consider the racial impacts of its actions. This piece demonstrates how VCU’s expansion has contributed to upholding White Supremacy rather than dismantling it.
As a growing university in a city center, VCU faces many challenges in terms of its space. During my 3 years of employment at VCU, scheduling has posed a challenge every semester; there are hardly enough classrooms to hold the number of students and classes needed. This semester, a number of students were forced into temporary housing because there were not enough dorms on move-in day.[iv] Over the past decade, these challenges have resulted in VCU purchasing several local buildings, often paying three to four times more than the appraisal value for those properties, pushing out minority-owned businesses in the process.
In the spring of 2018, VCU acquired Mansion 534: one of the few local nightclubs that catered to LGBTQ+ people of color.[v] A year later, VCU ended the lease of a local Black-owned restaurant, Jamaica House, a neighborhood staple that had been in that location for 25 years.[vi] These acquisitions and determinations about the use of VCU properties have largely come at the expense of Black and minority-owned businesses in the city. As an institution that purports a commitment to addressing inequities in the city, VCU has an obligation to ensure that it is acquiring and using space in a way that doesn’t harm already vulnerable groups. Time and again, however, it has perpetuated inequalities rather than alleviating them.
More than just expanding the facilities, the Master Plan also aims to connect the main and medical campuses. The mile and a half between the two cuts through the heart of Richmond and through the middle Jackson Ward, one of Richmond’s oldest predominantly Black neighborhoods. Historically, Jackson Ward was a thriving cultural and financial center for Black business, earning the moniker “Black Wall Street” in the early 1900’s.[vii] The Broad Street Corridor, which is also the southern boundary of Jackson Ward, is the street that most directly connects the two campuses and VCU has already implemented major transformations on the route. The Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC) created the Pulse, a bus rapid transit system, designed to travel along the Broad Street Corridor; VCU has entered into a multimillion-dollar contract to provide free access to this system for employees and students.[viii]
The construction of the Pulse was a massive disruption for local residents and the business community, ultimately limiting access to local businesses in the path of the construction and leading to lost business revenue.[ix] Moreover, the re-routing of other bus lines in the city to accommodate the Pulse resulted in an overall decrease in access to lower income and Black neighborhoods—those that rely on access to the bus as their primary method of transportation.[x] The university is now benefitting from a system that disrupted and harmed Black neighborhoods and businesses.
VCU’s influence is not just exerted through the properties it owns and buys or through its contracts with the city—as one of the largest employers in the city, VCU has a great deal of political influence as well. In the spring of 2019, Dr. Michael Rao, President of VCU, published a ghost-written op-ed endorsing a local redevelopment project, Navy Hill.[xi] Many of the buildings in Navy Hill are currently unused city properties that the city deems “surplus.” They exist as surplus only because of the racist history of development in Richmond. The Navy Hill project states on its own website, “Major construction tore the neighborhood apart. It started in the 1950s, with construction of Interstate 95, and continued through the 1970s, when the Richmond Coliseum and conference center were built. While that construction secured a place for Richmond on America’s major East Coast highway, the price was high, and one of America’s historic African-American communities was altered beyond recognition.”[xii] In his op-ed, Dr. Rao linked the redevelopment of Navy Hill to VCU’s Master Plan and connection of the two campuses while failing to address how this harmful and racist history is now benefiting the university.
Navy Hill sits right next to the medical college and the planned development of apartments, restaurants, and shops would directly benefit the university. Though some of the housing that will be developed in Navy Hill would be reserved for affordable housing, the university largely sees the redevelopment as potential off-campus housing for employees and students that comes at no cost to the university. This occurs at the same time that the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority are evicting residents from public housing, preventing those apartments from being rented again, and planning to demolish major public housing units.[xiii] Dr. Rao is calling for the transformation of Richmond, but in a way that uplifts the university at the expense of lower income residents of the city and people of color.
With the expansion of transportation down the Broad Street Corridor comes additional policing. In January 2019, the City of Richmond approved VCU’s request to expand their jurisdiction down the Broad Street Corridor and through most of Jackson Ward. The expansion came as a surprise to many, as there was little prior public discussion of the change and its potential ramifications before the resolution passed. Concurrent jurisdiction means that now Jackson Ward is patrolled by both Richmond Police Department and VCU Police, effectively doubling the policing and surveillance of that community. Given the state of policing in Richmond, this is especially troubling.
A local group, the Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project, recently published a report on the racial disparities in policing in Richmond, finding that Black Richmonders are disproportionately impacted by over-policing.[xiv] For example, though the city is only 49% Black, 66% of all pedestrian stops involved Black citizens, 75% of arrests from traffic stops were Black citizens, and 75% of all use of force cases involved Black citizens. For certain categories of crime, these disparities are even greater. There is only one category that indicates geographic location, rather than a crime category for stops, and that is for pedestrian stops along the Broad Street Corridor, in which 80% of all stops are of Black Richmonders. The expansion of VCU’s jurisdiction into the city’s most over-policed communities is evidence of VCU’s lack of concern for them.
This expansion also has unique concerns as it pertains to the connection between policing and the Pulse. Unlike other GRTC busses, the Pulse requires passengers to purchase a ticket prior to boarding and show it to a security guard on the bus. While GRTC hires its own security to check passes for the Pulse, VCU Police sometimes board busses or patrol station platforms. Considering that VCU students and employees have free use of the Pulse, why are VCU officers patrolling the Pulse? The primary reason for security on the Pulse is fare enforcement, not public safety, as other city busses do not have security on board. This suggests that VCU police’s primary function in these situations is policing the other users of the Pulse: primarily lower-income people of color. While the involvement of VCU police on the Pulse has been limited, it is unsettling and should be explicitly addressed by the university.
VCU’s largest failure is not in the desire for expansion but instead how that expansion has supported White Supremacy by failing to account for the Black communities and businesses that stand in its path. In order to fulfill the vision of its strategic plan, VCU must be accountable to the surrounding community, recognizing the value of the local culture and community rather than trying to brand the entire city with VCU’s logo.
Dr. Liz Coston is a faculty member of the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies. Liz is an activist-scholar who received their PhD in Sociology from Stony Brook University, specializing in Criminology, Gender and Sexuality, and Race and Ethnicity. Their research examines how the intersections of race, class, and gender create differing experiences of marginalization and oppression for people who are LGBTQ. Liz is also actively involved in community-engaged research that examines racial disparities in policing Richmond, and works with community leaders and organizers to increase transparency and accountability in the Richmond Police Department.
[i] Virginia Commonwealth University. 2019. “ONE VCU Master Plan.” Richmond, VA: Virginia Commonwealth University. https://masterplan.vcu.edu/media/master-plan/documents/ONEVCU_MasterPlan_FINAL%20med%20res_web.pdf
[ii] Virginia Commonwealth University. 2018. “Quest 2025: Together We Transform.” Richmond, VA: Virginia Commonwealth University. https://quest.vcu.edu/media/quest/assets/005154-01_BOV%20materials%20for%20Dec%20(2).pdf
[iii] Zawitkowski, Victoria. 2015. “VCU Is Upgrading Area, Pushing the Poor Out.” in The Commonwealth Times. Richmond, VA. https://commonwealthtimes.org/2015/02/09/vcu-is-upgrading-area-pushing-the-poor-out/
[iv] Eason, Hannah. 2019. “VCU Freshmen Displaced in Grc Lounges as Temporary Housing.” in The Commonwealth Times. Richmond, VA. https://commonwealthtimes.org/2019/08/20/vcu-freshmen-displaced-in-grc-lounges-as-temporary-housing/
[v] Spiers, Jonathan. 2018. “VCU Buys Nightclub Building for $3.5m.” in Richmond BizSense. Richmond, VA. https://richmondbizsense.com/2018/02/20/vcu-buys-nightclub-building-3-5m/
[vi] O’Neal, J. Elias. 2019. “Jamaica House Moving out of VCU-Owned Building, Buys New Home up the Street.” in Richmond BizSense. Richmond, VA. https://richmondbizsense.com/2019/02/25/jamaica-house-moving-vcu-owned-building-buys-new-home-street/
[vii] Campbell, Alexia Fernández. 2016. “The Rise and Fall of Black Wall Street.” in The Atlantic. Washington D.C. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/08/the-end-of-black-wall-street/498074/
[viii] Conlon, Carolyn. 2019. “VCU, GRTC Reach Multiyear Agreement to Provide Transit Access to Vcu and Vcu Health System Students, Employees.” in VCU News. Richmond, VA: Virginia Commonwealth University. https://news.vcu.edu/article/VCU_GRTC_reach_multiyear_agreement_to_provide_transit_access
[ix] Robinson, Mark and Robert Zullo. 2017. “Virginia Should Pay Businesses Hurt by Pulse Bus Rapid Transit Construction, Richmond Councilwoman Says.” in Richmond Times-Dispatch. Richmond, VA. https://www.richmond.com/news/local/virginia-should-pay-businesses-hurt-by-pulse-bus-rapid-transit/article_78d97c0a-36bf-507b-a985-99e6be212d4b.html
[x] Rojas, C. Suarez. 2018. “Vcu Study Shows Grtc Bus Service in Low-Income Neighborhoods Still Lacking Despite New Route to Short Pump, Launch of Pulse.” in Richmond Times-Dispatch. Richmond, VA. https://www.richmond.com/news/local/vcu-study-shows-grtc-bus-service-in-low-income-neighborhoods/article_794c860c-eabe-5cf5-a2ad-5eb62bcab0d9.html
[xi] Rao, Michael. 2019. “Michael Rao Column: Navy Hill Would Be Transformative for All.” in Richmond Times-Dispatch. Richmond, VA. https://www.richmond.com/opinion/columnists/michael-rao-column-navy-hill-would-be-transformative-for-all/article_874c2baa-02f2-5b74-bf60-aed79f8eb1ea.html
[xiii] Robinson, Mark. 2019. “Creighton Court Evictions Prompt Outcry, Suspicion of Rrha Redevelopment Plans.” in Richmond Times-Dispatch. Richmond, VA. https://www.richmond.com/news/local/creighton-court-evictions-prompt-outcry-suspicion-of-rrha-redevelopment-plans/article_f4800d2c-208e-5aa0-b8da-f4e157fc4299.html
[xiv] Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project. 2019. “Our Streets, Our Say: Policing in Richmond.” Richmond, VA. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1J7UOpgMLNI2ZFqlFrYIF2c-ygW6i2uhl/view?fbclid=IwAR2aUpnHRBU15jiV5TBuumCvsVKhscK1XzJREtFSom4uGt9CwgfaImLIDHg