‘Removing obstacles to growth’

VUU’s plan for $42M investment includes new housing, but not historic hospital

Debora Timms | 2/8/2024, 6 p.m.
President Hakim J. Lucas used Virginia Union University’s Founders Day celebrations to announce a partnership with a New York-based development …
Virginia Union University officials recently announced a partnership with the Steinbridge Group and the Student Freedom Initiative to build 130 to 200 residences on the northern edge of VUU’s campus. Attending the Feb. 2 announcement at the university’s Claude G. Perkins Living and Learning Center were Leonard L. Sledge, director of the Department of Economic Development for the City of Richmond; Ann-Frances Lambert, City Council vice president; Tawan Davis, Steinbridge Group founding partner and CEO; Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson, VUU board chairman; Keith Shoates, COO of the Student Freedom Initiative; and Dr. Hakim Lucas, VUU president. Photo by Sandra Sellars

President Hakim J. Lucas used Virginia Union University’s Founders Day celebrations to announce a partnership with a New York-based development and investment firm to build affordable housing along Brook and Overbrook roads.

The Steinbridge Group has committed $42 million to build 130 to 200 residences on the northern edge of VUU’s campus.

During the Feb. 2 press conference, the group’s founder and CEO, Tawan Davis, said his firm had worked with businessman and philanthropist Robert F. Smith’s Student Freedom Initiative (SFI) to select VUU as the first HBCU to receive an investment as part of its $100 million initiative announced in November 2023.

Its aim is to help HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions make underutilized assets economically productive, thereby diversifying their revenue streams and improving their financial situations and endowments.

Mr. Davis estimated that Steinbridge’s investment in VUU will increase the university’s endowment 13% to 18%, as well as providing the school cash income 3.5 to 5.5 times greater than what would have resulted from the sale of the land in today’s market. He noted that while a significant number of Black professionals emerge from the HBCU system, the schools are funded 30% less than their counterparts and that the collective endowments of all HBCUs is less than the smallest Ivy League endowment.

Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson, VUU’s board chair, said this project was a demonstration of thinking creatively about removing the obstacles to growth.

“That is not new for Virginia Union because Virginia Union was born on the slave block,” he said about the university, which was founded in 1865 to provide formerly enslaved Virginians with educational opportunities.

He added this was just VUU’s first step in achieving its recently unveiled 10-year master plan.

But all of this change does not come without cost. Some people are concerned that the area’s history might be one of those costs with the loss of the old Richmond Community Hospital (RCH) building that currently sits unused on Overbrook Road.

When asked whether the vacant hospital building will be preserved, Dr. Lucas replied, “Oh, no. We will be memorializing (the site) and finding ways that historically represent it.”

When asked why the building will be destroyed, Dr. Lucas replied that “it is not in a place that we can convert any useable building in line with anything in the medical field.”

In 1932, RCH expanded to the site on Overbrook Road from Jackson Ward. VUU sold the land and the hospital’s board voted to return the building to the university when it moved in 1980 to its current location in the East End.

Many of the doctors who practiced at RCH also lived nearby in Douglass Court, the first Black subdivision built adjacent to VUU and named for Frederick Douglass.

Lifelong resident and fifth-generation Richmonder Gary L. Flowers said that history needs to be preserved and honored, and that the university’s leadership must be “very sensitive to what buildings like Richmond Community Hospital mean to us.

“If the building is demolished, there is no suitable memorialization of where it once stood,” he said in a recent telephone call.

Mr. Flowers said his connections to VUU and RCH are deeply personal. His paternal grandparents raised their family on DuBois Avenue in Douglass Court and he was born at RCH. His paternal great-grandfather was a laborer during the construction of the original nine buildings. And both his father and grandfather did construction work on campus while his mother was on the faculty of its Sydney Lewis School of Business.

“The building doesn’t take up a large footprint,” he said, arguing that the university should preserve the building as a museum that would honor the Black physicians who practiced there and those that came before.

“It could be preserved and housing built around it — a historical oasis in the Sankofa sense,” Mr. Flowers said, explaining that the African term Sankofa refers to a mythical bird whose head is turned backward while its feet face forward. Sankofa is a Twi word from the Akan Tribe of Ghana that loosely translates to, “Go back and get it.”

He added that creating such a museum would “enshrine those medical practitioners, while at the same time moving forward with the development of Virginia Union University.”

VUU plans to break ground on the project in late 2024 and finish work by the end of 2025.