Nestled in the corner of Seventh and East Broad streets in downtown Richmond stands the brick-and-stone front of the renovated Franklin Federal Savings and Loan building, now home to the University of Richmond satellite campus, UR Downtown.
Although an initial move-in occurred in January 2009, the program officially opened on March 3 and held open houses the week of March 16 to allow the community to explore the new space and understand the program.
The mission behind UR Downtown, formed as a joint effort between the university's Bonner Center for Civic Engagement and Richmond's T.C. William's School of Law, is to give the university a physical presence in the city of Richmond, which will help the university structure its operations around the community.
Each of the three programs that comprise UR Downtown - the Richmond Families Initiative, the Harry L. Carrico Center for Pro Bono Service and the Jeanette Lipman Family Law Clinic - seek to connect students with people and causes within the city of Richmond.
Occupying the first floor of the building, the UR Downtown campus is divided into administrative and public sections. The administrative space of the UR Downtown building was designed with the client in mind, said Liz Riggs, UR Downtown coordinator.
An entrance for staff and guests is located on the Seventh Street side of the building and a small play area for clients' children extends from the reception room. A community resources room has two computers for public use, and Riggs said the empty bookshelves would soon be filled with informational pamphlets from various organizations for people to take and use. Interview spaces, research and preparation rooms, and offices are located throughout the hallways of the administrative suite.
The public section of the building is composed of four multipurpose, reservable rooms and a gallery. Judy Mejia, program manager of the RFI, said she had hoped the available spaces would become a place for club meetings, lectures and classes to take place.
"We want everybody to see this as a space for themselves," she said, adding that although UR Downtown had been created to help Richmond families, other connections could exist as well.
Riggs also stressed the flexibility of the public space. Because all of the furniture is moveable, she said, the rooms could be altered to meet different event needs.
"We see classes here, and not just law school ones," Riggs said. She said she envisioned adding community meetings, forums, discussions and training events to her list of possible uses for the space.
Mejia said the proximity of the Virginia State Capitol and the Richmond CenterStage Theater had placed UR Downtown in a prime location.
"We've really began to see how this could become a university-wide space. Everyone can tap into a part," she said, naming business, government and art as just a few areas.
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Mejia envisioned UR Downtown as a space for social gatherings, such as movie screenings, a headquarters during the coming Virginia gubernatorial race or a location for conferences and seminars.
"We want to have students really engage with and think critically about the space [in which] they are living," she said.
Tara Casey, director of Pro Bono Services, shared Mejia's thoughts about the new downtown space, saying that the three UR Downtown programs worked together to engage the university with the city and the city with the university.
Alumni, friends of the university and the Richmond community were invited to the open houses.
"We are re-introducing ourselves to the community," Mejia said. "We want as many people to learn about UR Downtown as possible."
Krista Dawson, literacy outreach coordinator for Richmond Public Libraries, attended one of the open house events to see if there were any connections between her program and UR Downtown. She said the community collaboration aspect of the program literature had caught her eye and she had been curious to see the new space.
Carrie Dyer, director of development at Special Olympics Virginia and Richmond '07 alumna, attended the open house as well.
"It seems like a great project," she said, adding that her work in a non-profit made her especially interested in the program.
For Andrew McRoberts, county attorney and Richmond '90 alumnus, the proximity to the city courts makes UR Downtown's location a prime spot.
"It is appropriate to have it here," he said, comparing it with a return-home of sorts because Richmond's campus had originally been located downtown until it had moved to its present location in 1914.
The architecture and design of UR Downtown's building are meant to reflect its connection to the city, as well as its past. Renovators sought to retain the historical aspects of the original Savings and Loan building, which is most evidently seen in the retention of a 1956 wall mural, "The Circulation of Money," by Hans Gassman. In an effort to tie the current space with Richmond's past, black-and-white photographs of "Richmond in the 1950s," by Adolph B. Rice, line the hallways and Wilton Companies Gallery.
Each UR Downtown program uniquely connects to the city as well. The Families Initiative focuses on connecting students to needs within the community through volunteering, research and courses. Because many non-profit organizations operate on shoestring budgets, Mejia said, the program tries to match students with a specific organization and need.
The Pro Bono Center connects law students with Richmond attorneys to work on cases. The students do not receive credit or payment for their efforts, but are all volunteers, Casey said.
One of the main goals of the Pro Bono Center is to allow students to take what they learn and put it into practice, she said.
"We want to develop within our law students a habit of service," she said, adding that she had hoped students would continue volunteering after graduation as well.
The Family Law Clinic allows students to directly represent clients from the community through a year-long seminar course that includes a 16-hours-per-week legal intern requirement.
Dale Margolin, director of the Family Law Clinic, said her program had been a way for students to get practical experience. The clinic works with Virginia Commonwealth University's department of psychology and school of social work.
"People need more than just a lawyer," Margolin said, explaining that social work and psychological expertise in many cases were crucial to being effective because many of the issues stemmed beyond legal needs.
The connection with VCU also ties in with Richmond's overall mission to connect with the community, she said.
Approximately 100 students use the UR Downtown campus in many ways. Some students work with the law clinic, some with the pro bono program, others take classes and a few do research, internships and volunteering, Mejia said.
Contact reporter Jill Cavaliere at firstname.lastname@example.org
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