Virginia State University (VSU) is under a massive expansion program, which will elevate the university to a SACS Level 6 institution, an important move for the university, which will propel the school to a higher profile among universities and confirm that it provides quality graduate and post graduate programs. In addition to an aggressive academic program, the university is expanding its ability to house additional students as it gains recognition as a Historical Black College and University.
The school’s master plan includes construction of additional student housing facilities and the renovation of a number of other dormitories. One such dormitory is scheduled for immediate construction, but the university has a problem. The $20 million facility, which will be located in Chesterfield County and will assist in the revitalization of Chesterfield Avenue and the Ettrick area, will not be finished for the fall semester.
According to Thomas Reed, the university’s director of university relations, the university will need temporary housing until the new housing facility is built. “We’ve been searching for an appropriate safe housing for students who will be registering in the fall. It could be as many as 400 students,” Reed said. He said that the school had been working with two hoteliers in Chester to accommodate new students until the Gateway II, a 500-bed, suite-style housing facility is complete.
But the school is getting resistance from Chesterfield County.
VSU found hotels owned by hoteliers Amil and Nick Patel to be suitable housing that would achieve their goal. The Days Inn, Clarion and Quality Inn in Chester on Route 10 near Interstate 95 could be used as temporary housing for incoming VSU students. VSU considers the hotel accommodations a good fit for their students and offers one of the only options to date to solve their student housing crunch.
Chesterfield officials demanded a meeting with the Patels, according to Nick, and during that meeting he said it was indicated that a Chesterfield County Supervisor and a local police captain had indicated they were uncomfortable with bringing “that element” into the Chester area.
According to email correspondence with Nick, Bermuda District Supervisor Dorothy Jaeckle apologized for her behavior during the meeting.
“My comments in a sense were an insult to college students raised in the Western culture; I did not know if you attended a college in the United States or a foreign country ... Unfortunately, we have established a culture in our American colleges that it is party time,” Jaeckle wrote. She writes that a fictional account by Tom Wolfe captures college days.The book titled “I Am Charlotte Simmons” is based on Wolfe’s own college experience. Wolfe attended college in 1947.
The school promised to place guards at the hotel housing units and provide transportation for the students, but Jaeckle indicated in her email that guards and RAs (resident advisors) tend to turn a blind eye to partying. Jaeckle responded to the Village News in an email Friday that she, the police department, and building department thought there were a number of concerns in the proposal.
“Both our building inspectors office and the police department identified safety concerns,” Jaeckle wrote. “Chesterfield County prides itself on being considered a safe community that would include the safety of students who are attending Virginia State University. I have learned that a fire sprinkler system is required by the state building code to protect students and meet safety standards. In addition the traffic count and number of accidents on this stretch of Route 10 is high and there are no sidewalks, crosswalks or streetlights for pedestrian safety in this area of hotels. Although this proposal would bring business to the county, I believe in this case the safety concerns outweigh the business opportunity.”
The Patels and the university feel that they have addressed these concerns, but according to Chesterfield Deputy Administrator Bill Dupler, the use of the hotels will have to be changed, and that will require upgrades including sprinkler systems and handicapped access in at least one of the hotels. Once again the hoteliers indicate they will make whatever upgrades the county requires, but in a letter to the Patels, Richard Wright, interim building official writes, “As indicated in a recent meeting, my staff and I will work with you to expedite the process based on the short timeframe in this situation.”
Dupler cites safety issues on a busy highway and the amount of improvements needed, “I don’t think there’s much of a chance they could complete the improvements before the student’s arrival in, what, mid August.”
The Patels maintain that issues presented by the county could be overcome and that there has been a stalling campaign initiated.
In a letter written to the Patels as a reply to why a conditional use amendment for a sign for Logan’s Steakhouse on the property adjacent to one of the hotels was deferred, the sign company wrote relative to the sign approval, the supervisor had indicated, “One didn’t have anything to do with the other but it would give... some leverage.”
The Patels continue their effort to assist VSU with their housing needs and say that revenue for businesses in the area of the hotel stand to generate upwards of $5 million a year. The hotel tax will also generate for the county nine percent of the hotels’ annual income. And as Reed said, VSU is disappointed in the county. “We need a little help in locating students, and they’re not cooperating. We want to be good neighbors and meanwhile we are building a $20 million facility in Chesterfield.”
Dupler say that the county will assist in finding a suitable safe place for VSU’s student housing.