Keeping VUU logos atop the campus tower will cost the university $35,000 a year

A lighted logo on the tower of Virginia Union University’s Belgian Building. (Screenshot courtesy of WTVR)

Virginia Union University could keep the illuminated “VUU” signs it illegally placed on its campus steeple — but at a cost.

A nearly finalized agreement with the State Historic Resources Board to allow the signage to remain in place includes an annual payment of $35,000 that VUU would be required to pay each year while the signs remain in place, among other provisions. .

The agreement aims to mitigate the placement of the signs and preserve the 1930s tower and educate the public about its history. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources holds a preservation easement it established with VUU that includes the tower structure and the adjoining Belgian Building.

Julie Lagan

Julie Langan, the DHR director whose signing would make the agreement official, said funds from the annual payments would go to preservation projects in Richmond and contribute to a legal defense fund for the Virginia Historic Preservation Easement Program, which DHR said had been violated when the signs were installed in 2019.

The signs were also placed without the required approvals from the city, which is considering how to allow the signs after the fact.

Langan said the state agreement, which spanned two years, was reviewed by the attorney general’s office and approved by the governor. She said she expected the deal to be fully executed in the coming days.

While a verbal agreement between VUU and the state was reached a year ago, finalizing the document was further delayed by a separate issue with the city, which requires its own approvals for the signs to remain.

Among them, a certificate of adequacy is required from the Richmond Architectural Review Board, which determined the panels violated the city’s historic preservation guidelines and earlier this year refused to review a third VUU request after previous refusals.

VUU has appealed CAR’s action to the city council, which can overrule the commission to award a certificate. A resolution to that effect was introduced in July by Councilwoman Ann-Frances Lambert, whose third district includes the university.

At the council’s land use, housing and transport committee meeting this week, Lambert said the importance of the signs to the university and the community justifies an exception to any local rules that have been violated during their installation.

Ann Frances Lambert

“The VUU sign is already up and lit,” Lambert said, adding that highway travelers can “see the illumination of one of the oldest historically black universities here in the city.”

Addressing his council colleagues on the committee, Lambert added: “This is an exception to the rule. This item is something we need in town. I think this action is consistent with the rights and powers we have as council to overrule some of the recommended decisions, and it is for the greater public good here in the City of Richmond.

Committee members Andreas Addison, Michael Jones and Ellen Robertson accepted and recommended approval to the full board, which is due to consider the resolution at its meeting on Monday.

The certificate is one of three city approvals needed for the signs to remain, said Kevin Vonck, Richmond’s planning and development review manager. A Special Use Permit is also required to permit the size of the sign, which exceeds what is permitted in institutionally zoned districts, as well as sign and electrical permits which are dependent on the award of the certificate.

“There are a number of things that need to be corrected for this sign to stick,” Vonck told the committee.

The committee also heard from Dale Mullen, a Whiteford Taylor Preston lawyer representing VUU. He said the commission overlooked the fact that a corner of the tower was electrified when the Belgian building complex was awarded to VUU for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

VUU signage atop the tower of the Virginia Union University Belgian Building. (BizSense File Photo)

The structure was originally a pavilion designed by a renowned Belgian architect for Belgium’s entry to the fair. Belgium offered it because of the Nazi invasion of the country during World War II, and VUU awarded it to other competing American universities. A fundraising effort at the time led by VUU produced the $500,000 needed to move the complex.

“The Vann Tower, lest anyone be mistaken about it, does not look like it did when it emerged from the 1939 World’s Fair,” Mullen said. “In fact, we have graphic representations of this tower as it existed at the time, and an entire corner, the northeast corner, was lit with electricity. In 1939, it was a big deal at the World’s Fair to have this tower lit up in one corner by electric lights.

Dale Mullen

Arguing that VUU has “long lacked prominent signage” while Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond have enjoyed signage throughout the city, Mullen said, “We are here on appeal because the (VUU community) thinks it’s appropriate that they should have their time, place and signs like everyone else.

Felicia Cosby, VUU’s director of government and community relations, joined Mullen in describing the neon signs as a “beacon of hope” for the university and the community.

“This sign and lighting illuminates the hope, the aspirations, the history of a people and institutions that society has long tried to bury or ignore, both in this city, nationally and global,” Cosby said.

In a statement after the meeting, Mullen said VUU was pleased the committee recommended the certificate be approved. He also noted that Addison, Jones, and Robertson each asked to be added to the resolution as co-bosses.

Langan, who described the city’s process as separate from the state’s, said after the meeting that she was pleased the deal was done.

“I’m just happy that we came to a mutual conclusion,” she said. “It’s been a long time coming.”

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