A Sign of Miscommunication: Oregon Hill Residents Want Answers Over New VCU Sign

December 9, 2013

A VCU directional sign erected in Oregon Hill has caused discontent amongst residents.
A VCU directional sign erected in Oregon Hill has caused discontent amongst residents. Photo by | William Lineberry

By William Lineberry

RICHMOND– Oregon Hill is a traditional working-class neighborhood that rests between the James River and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and it’s always been up against forces bigger than itself, according to Jennifer Hancock, a decade-long resident of the neighborhood and president of the Oregon Hill Neighborhood Association.

The neighborhood, along with others that border VCU, such as Carver and the Fan, has for years battled with VCU to prevent what residents see as an unwelcome encroachment by this large entity into the historically small district of 1,400 residents, according to city data.com. Today, that battle to retain “a sense of uniqueness” and separation from VCU still exists in Oregon Hill, according to residents.

The most recent development that has spurred discontent in Oregon Hill is a new VCU directional sign that sits at the northeastern corner of the historic neighborhood at the corner of Belvidere and Cumberland streets. This sign, Hancock said, was erected without any communication from VCU or the Richmond Metro Authority—the technical owners of the land where the sign sits.

“We just woke up one morning and there was a sign there,” Hancock said. “There was no communication from the university with us about it.”

The neighborhood is concerned with the sign because there might be a tendency to slowly associate, or “misidentify,” Oregon Hill as part of VCU—something that the neighborhood has tried to prevent since VCU began expanding into it during the 1990s, Hancock said.

Because VCU has slowly, over the years, expanded into and encroached upon the traditional boundaries that make up Oregon Hill—which is both a national and state historic district, but not a designated city wide historical district– residents tend to react strongly when the university makes moves in their direction without any communication, such as it has done with the directional sign, Hancock said.

“Oregon Hill has worked very hard to maintain its identity away from VCU,” Hancock said. “If we want the neighborhood to exist, then we have to keep that identity in tact.”

Meghan Gough, a professor in urban and regional planning at VCU, said the struggle for ground and distintion between universities and the neighborhoods they border is not anything new.

“This problem is not unique to VCU,” Gough said. “Any time you have a dense and historic area surrounding an expanding entity, this is going to happen.”

Gough said it is essential in the planning process for universities to take into consideration how their decision to expand will impact others.

Residents are not completely opposed to a directional sign where the current one is because it is not in a residential area, Hancock said. It is the fact that the sign is strictly VCU and the fact that there was no communication either from VCU or the RMA with the neighborhood about erecting the sign that bothers residents of the neighborhood, she said. The RMA did not respond to interview requests for this story.

This podcast is with Jennifer Hancock, president of the Oregon Hill Neighborhood Association. In it, she discusses how she does not view VCU as an enemy but states that Oregon Hill must be allowed to maintain its historic identity. One example cited of a neighborhood that lost its ground to I-95 is cited as one that residents of Oregon Hill want to avoid.  

Residents would like to have a sign that is not solely VCU and in the VCU colors within the technical and historical boundaries of the neighborhood. A more neutral sign that represents both VCU and Oregon Hill would be best, residents said.

OHNA defines the boundaries that make up Oregon Hill as everything from, “Belvidere Street on the East, Cary Street on the north, Hollywood Cemetery and that portion of Harrison St. lying north of the Downtown Expressway on the west, and the southernmost boundary of Oregon Hill Park on the south,” according to section three of their bylaws. The National Registry of Historic Places has also a similar boundary for the neighborhood.

View Oregon Hill Neighborhood in a larger map

Above, is a map of Oregon Hill. Click on either the colored sections, or thumb tacks to read more about the neighborhood.

VCU also has roughly the same definition of Oregon Hill’s boundaries.

“It’s important that when universities expand they allow neighborhoods around them to maintain their own individual character,” Tito Luna, director of community relations at VCU, said. “We need to communicate with them about our decisions.”

The university was recently made aware of the neighborhood’s objections over the sign and is currently looking into it why it was placed in Oregon Hill and what the necessity of it is, Luna said.

Losing Ground

Oregon Hill has been struggling to hold its ground against both VCU and other large entities for a long time, Scott Burger, an Oregon Hill resident, VCU liaison for Oregon Hill and OHNA member, said. One example cited by residents of how Oregon Hill has lost ground over the years was in the 1960s when the downtown expressway was created and ran through Oregon Hill.

The neighborhood before the expressway had 1,200 homes without any major dividers between sections of it. After the expressway, Oregon Hill was cut almost in half, residents said.

“This struggle goes back way before me,” Burger said. “For years, people have been trying to keep the neighborhood intact.”

Another example cited by Hancock in how VCU did not consider how its decisions to expand would affect their neighbors—such as it has done with the new directional sign– dealt with the VCU gym on Cary Street. In order to erect this gym, VCU had to expand further into the neighborhood and demolish historic buildings that were part of the Oregon Hill Historic District, Hancock said. This did not sit well with the neighborhood, and set a bad precedent for communication and compromise between the university and Oregon Hill, she said.

The struggle with VCU started mainly in the 1990s when VCU was growing and attempting to expand into Oregon Hill, Burger said. It is in this time period that OHNA was formed in attempt to preserve the neighborhood. Since then, there has been a struggle between the neighborhood and university, he said.

Residents of Oregon Hill see the possibility of losing more ground to VCU as a reality because the university has not made a permanent agreement between the city, the VCU board of visitors and the neighborhood association that would protect Oregon Hill from anymore encroachment, Burger said. This is despite having asked for this agreement numerous times before, he said.

“I do not think the university has done an honorable job at being neighborly,” Burger said. “I’m concerned about the future (of Oregon Hill) because VCU—and to a certain extent, the city — has not promised anything that will protect this neighborhood.”

This podcast is also with Jennifer Hancock, president of the Oregon Hill Neighborhood Association. In this podcast she discusses how VCU’s attempted push in the 1990s into Oregon Hill helped unite the neighborhood and create the neighborhood association.

VCU has a plan to attempt better communication with its neighbors through a new community liaison program, Luna said. Each neighborhood association will select one community member to meet with VCU officials periodically to discuss concerns they have regarding their areas and the university, he said. Burger is the Oregon Hill liaison.

“We want to hear what the neighborhoods are dealing with,” Luna said. “We realize, as an urban university, that our boundaries can often times create challenges and we want to be made aware of the neighborhoods’ challenges.”

Citing the 2014 VCU Master Plan, Luna said VCU has no current plans to build anything new in, or around, the Oregon Hill neighborhood.

The past relationship between Oregon Hill and VCU has not been exactly “warm,” Hancock said. But communication has been better with VCU President Michael Rao than with his predecessor, Eugene Trani. The neighborhood does not view VCU as an enemy and hopes that a better communication level and relationship can be established in the future, she said.

“I’d like to improve the relationship with VCU and Oregon Hill,” Hancock said. “But I don’t think Oregon Hill should have to sacrifice the things that make Oregon Hill unique.”

Below is a Storify presentation about Oregon Hill.