As the University of Virginia celebrates its bicentennial, a series of panelists on Friday explored the societal effects expansion has had on Charlottesville throughout the decades.
“What I’ve been struck by is how little the average UVa student knows about Charlottesville history,” said Morgan Feldenkris, a third-year student.
Feldenkris is a part of a class on community and civic engagement called “All Politics is Local” that is taught by Sarah Milov and Andrew Kahrl.
“This class was conceived as a way to get students more involved, interested and knowledgeable about local politics,” said Kahrl, an associate professor in the Corcoran Department of History.
“Part of the goal was to enable students to think of themselves as political actors even when they don’t realize they are political actors,” said Milov, an assistant professor in the department. “A number of students proposed concrete ways students can organize within the university [and also] within the city itself.”
UVa has grown from a student population of only 68 in 1825 to 24,360 students in the 2017-2018 academic year. The latter number includes 16,655 undergraduates and 7,253 graduate students. A study conducted in 2016 by the firm Tripp Umbach found that UVa has an economic impact of $4.8 billion to the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission each year, including $200 million in local government taxes.
Some of the people who appeared at the symposium called on the university to do more to address its effect on housing prices, wages and public transportation.
“There are concentrations of power by our public institutions that is also an anchor institution in our community and has a public purpose,” said Barbara Brown Wilson, an assistant professor in the School of Architecture.
The first panel described the effects a growing UVa has had on low-income neighborhoods within walking distance.
A comprehensive rezoning of Charlottesville in 2003 allowed for dense residential development in areas close to UVa. Since then, the private sector stepped in to provide large student housing complexes in places such as 14th Street Northwest and Wertland Street. In recent years, the Flats at West Village and the Lark on Main have opened with nearly 1,000 bedrooms on West Main Street marketed at students. The Standard will follow suit before the new academic year begins.
“These are right next to neighborhoods, and are clearly increasing property values,” Feldenkris said. “There is also a cultural displacement that’s going on.”
Feldenkris said UVa should do more to encourage students to stay in on-Grounds housing beyond their first year. In the past several years, millions have been spent to rebuild first-year dorms on Alderman Road.
“UVa itself had been investing in first-year housing without making investments in second-year, third-year and fourth-year housing,” Feldenkris said.
UVa is soon to redevelop the Brandon Avenue area with several new buildings, including a new dormitory for upperclass students.
“This is one of the biggest student development housing projects in years, but it will only add about 500 beds to the on-grounds student housing stock,” said Brian Cameron, a third-year student. “We’re also talking about a gap of 10,000 students more who live off Grounds.”
The group also looked at properties being purchased by the university or its foundation across the city. UVa paid $8.73 million in August 2016 for 2.63 acres off Roosevelt Brown Boulevard. A previous developer had planned a series of mixed-use buildings at that location.
“For the first time, UVa has properties that are across the railroad tracks and into Fifeville itself,” Feldenkris said.
“The University has no plans at this time to develop [the] properties,” UVa spokesman Anthony de Bruyn said in an email.
Cameron suggested UVa should put its $8.6 billion endowment to work to build more housing.
“It’s time for the university to think about doing its part to mitigate its negative externalities,” Cameron said.
De Bruyn said that in addition to the beds currently under construction at Brandon Avenue, the university is planning for another 600 in the general vicinity.
“In addition, we have 300 first year beds … in the university capital plan,” de Bruyn said.
Other panelists spoke on the effect the UVa Medical Center has on wages, whether dining programs run by the firm Aramark should be reformed to pay higher wages and whether Charlottesville residents near the university have access to adequate grocery stores. Others mentioned infant mortality, reproductive rights and the high cost of day care.
Another panelist reported that 1,465 refugees have been resettled Charlottesville in the past six years. The majority has arrived from Afghanistan and Syria, and many of them rely on public transportation.
“The issue is when you’re settled in other areas of Charlottesville, the ability to get to jobs and schools can be a lot more difficult,” said one of the participants.
For instance, the University Transit System serves apartments on Ivy Road where many refugees live, but does not operate year-round. The two systems are separate, though the university does pay the city to allow anyone with a UVa ID to ride Charlottesville Area Transit buses for free.
Several faculty members, including Ron Dimberg, a scholar of Asian studies, attended the event. Dimberg moved to Charlottesville in August 1968 and remembers there was much conversation at the time about race relations in the community.
“Vinegar Hill was still very much part of the conversation,” he said of the predominately black neighborhood that was demolished in the name of urban renewal. “I remember when we first heard about Vinegar Hill and what happened to it and the implications and the ramifications.”
Dimberg said conversations about the racial tensions of the late 1960s and early 1970s subsided, at least on Grounds, in part because of the gradual desegregation of UVa and appearance of more minorities in both the student body and on faculty. He said the events of last summer have returned the matter to the forefront.
“You see references now in the news to ‘Charlottesville,’ and everyone knows what that means,” Dimberg said. “A young man today said today [at the symposium] that we’ve had enough of dialogue. But what we’re having today is dialogue in the aftermath. I think it’s far more part of the everyday conversation than it was for a long time.”
Milov said the events of last summer were a “moment of spark” that has increased awareness of community issues among students.
“We’re at a pregnant point in the city’s political history because of the events of Aug. 11 and 12,” Milov said. “There’s greater awareness and willingness perhaps to be experimental in new ways.”