In 2001, the University of Richmond purchased nearly 109 acres of bare land 10 minutes away from campus with the idea of building a new football stadium, Jennifer Sevin, professor of ecology, said.
Years later, the land remains untouched by university construction.
Sevin often takes her ecology classes to the property for lab expeditions such as bird surveys, tree surveys and mammal surveys, she said.
There are few other uses for the land at the moment, aside from the occasional cross-country practice and the presence of a cell tower that rents a piece of the land from UR, Sevin said.
Biology professor Peter Smallwood is the expert on the land, which is referred to by the school as the Pagebrook Property, and Sevin said he had been involved with the land and its uses since the university had purchased it.
Smallwood is currently on a year-long leave of absence in Washington, D.C., where he is working on a fellowship project with the United States Agency for International Development.
The Pagebrook Property was purchased at a time when the school was weighing options for the location of a new football stadium, he said.
Before the Spiders began playing in the E. Claiborne Robins Stadium on campus, the team played in a stadium 15 minutes away in downtown Richmond. When the lease for the stadium was up, the owners did not want to renew it, Smallwood said.
Herb Peterson, the chief financial officer of the university in 1999, told Smallwood that he thought that even if UR didn’t end up using the Pagebrook Property land to build a stadium, it was good to have options.
“It was a good price,” Smallwood said. “Maybe we were going to want to put the stadium there, but even if we didn’t, real estate is a good investment and it made sense to put a big block of real estate in the school’s financial portfolio.”
The university bought the land for $1,846,095 in 2001, according to Goochland County records.
In the end, UR decided to build the new stadium on campus in order to garner more student attendance at football games, and the land has remained as a valuable asset for the university to hold on to, Smallwood said.
The Pagebrook Property was the site of a few different buildings before Richmond acquired the land. There are remains of a cemetery, the debris and rubble of an old house and another vacant but maintained house, Sevin said.
Smallwood took an interest in the histories of the land and made an effort to learn more.
“The administration calls it the Pagebrook Property,” Smallwood said. “I’ve called it the graveyard enough to be annoying to them because there actually is an abandoned graveyard on the property and I don’t want it to be forgotten.”
Smallwood discovered this graveyard and did some historical digging to discover that it likely served the African-American community in the area around the 1920s.
Many of the bodies have been removed except for about three gravestones, and Smallwood tracked down the mortuary service that worked with the cemetery at the time.
Unfortunately, all records before 1945 were lost in a fire, and the mortuary had only the passed-down stories and traditions of its family business to show the history of the property, Smallwood said.
Smallwood then tracked down the descendants of a woman who had been buried in one of the graves, but the family refused to talk to him for undisclosed reasons, he said.
“What I’m about to tell you is sheer speculation,” Smallwood said. “What I can tell you for sure is that there was an abandoned graveyard from the '20s, and I can tell you that there is a cement slab foundation nearby. The 1920s was a time of great racial violence in Richmond, so I’m wondering if it was a church that was burned out."
Meanwhile, the university continues to hold on to the Pagebrook Property as a valuable asset in its financial portfolio, Smallwood said.
The Office of Financial Planning and Budget did not respond to requests for an interview for this article.
Smallwood said he had heard rumors about what UR might do with the Pagebrook Property.
The university has considered the possibility of moving the T.C. Williams School of Law to the site if the university grows significantly and needs the law school building currently on campus for undergraduate studies.
Or, if the endowment took a hit, the school could cash in the property as an asset, he said. Today, the Pagebrook Property's total market value is $3,041,000, according to county records.
“The university speaks in decades and centuries,” Smallwood said. “For a university, the time horizon is eternity, so it makes sense to keep the piece of real estate even if it’s not being used.”
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