by James A. Bacon
Union Presbyterian Seminary settled into its current location off Brook Road in northside Richmond in 1898, when industrialist Lewis Ginter donated land to the educational institution from the streetcar suburb he was developing. The seminary has been a good neighbor ever since, leaving a large tract of the land vacant as a park open to the public. Now the seminary needs some of that land to build new housing for seminary students and their families in place of antiquated housing that it provides at present.
The neighbors are up in arms. Many people who live nearby, it appears, are worried about the loss of open space, traffic and the impact on property values, according to the Times-Dispatch. A “crowd of hundreds” packed a meeting in the seminary auditorium when the institution unveiled a proposal to build 349 housing units. At one point, some in the crowd erupted in loud boos.
I find this extraordinary. Who do these people think they are? It’s one thing if the City of Richmond decided to sell a public park to a developer. It’s quite another when a private institution, which has been a foundation of the community for more than a century, wants to sell the land in order to preserve the viability of that institution. The seminary owns the land — not the neighbors!
The Presbyterian denomination has fallen upon hard times. The number of adherents is shrinking. Between 2008 and 2011, the denomination closed churches at the rate of 75 to 80 per year. Under the 2009-2014 strategic plan, Union Presbyterian slashed its budget by $3 million, reduced the number of students to 180 FTEs, and cut its faculty from 32 to 22.5 FTEs to align with the smaller student body.
Now the seminary is seeking to raise $75 million to reinvent itself — in effect, to stay relevant in a changing world. According to the 2014-2019 strategic plan, the campaign has raised $27.2 million, but achieving its goals also requires maximizing the value of its real estate holdings that have long laid dormant.
Here’s the killer. According to the T-D, the seminary could extract even greater profit from the property by building at greater density, as allowed under existing zoning, or by selling the land on the open market. It is not pursuing those options. The seminary wants to be a good neighbor. “We’re trying to do what’s right by the community and what’s right by the seminary,” said Andrew M. Condlin, a local land-use attorney.
Apparently, that’s not good enough. Some attendees took exception to the idea of the seminary erecting a four-story building at the corner of Brook and Westwood — as if a four-story building would be out of character for a higher ed setting!
They’re worried about traffic, too. Have these people been possessed by Beelzebub? The housing would be occupied by seminary students who would walk to the campus across the street! OK, some students might be married and have kids. Gee, spouses might drive to their jobs or run errands. I’ve driven on those Northside Streets and they are way under-utilized. Traffic fears are utter nonsense.
As for property values, adding quality density development will increase the value of property along the Brook Street corridor, not diminish it. More to the point, maybe the neighbors had better focus on what would happen to property values if Union Presbyterian closed its doors! Imagine the impact if the buildings were vacant and the landscaping was going to pot?
The incident brings to mind the parable of Jesus and the talents:
For it is like a man going on a journey, who summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The one who had received five talents went off right away and put his money to work and gained five more. In the same way, the one who had two gained two more. But the one who had received one talent went out and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money in it. After a long time, the master of those slaves came and settled his accounts with them. The one who had received the five talents came and brought five more, saying, ‘Sir, you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ The one with the two talents also came and said, ‘Sir, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more.’ His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful with a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Sir, I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’ But his master answered, ‘Evil and lazy slave! … You should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received my money back with interest! Therefore take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten.
For years, Union Presbyterian had done the functional equivalent of burying its talent in the ground — to the benefit of its neighbors. It can no longer afford that luxury. It’s time to put that asset to work. Jesus understood how capitalism functioned and cited approvingly the investment of money to make more money. (He also thought that the kingdom of God was at hand and urged his followers to give their money away, but that’s a different issue.) The seminary is acting entirely within its rights. The neighbors ought to be darned grateful their input was solicited at all.
The people at Union Presbyterian are far too nice to say this but I will: It’s time for the neighbors to stop bellyaching over trivial inconveniences and time to help make sure the seminary is still around another century from now.