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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Old Dominion University's Neighbors and Friends

By Brendan O'Hallarn

Old Dominion University has been a significant presence in Norfolk's northwest for the past 84 years, with an outsized impact on the region - economically, academically and culturally.

A unique perspective on the school's growth, however, can be found in the Old Dominion University Archives and Special Collections, housed on the third floor of Perry Library.

In the 1930s, shortly after the school was created as the Norfolk Division of the College of William and Mary, an aerial photo was taken of the space that would become Kaufman Mall, the heart of the present campus. In the photograph, Kaufman Mall is little more than a field.

The edges of the photograph are interesting, however. On the left and right hand sides, the field is adjoined by established neighborhoods, with stately homes and mature trees.

In its eight decades of existence, Old Dominion has grown to the point where its impact on the surrounding neighborhoods of Lambert's Point, Larchmont and Highland Park is significant in many ways. That aerial photograph demonstrates just how important that partnership has been. The school that became Old Dominion University literally sprung up in these neighborhoods' midst.

Residents of the three neighborhoods say like any long-term relationship, there are good times and there have been challenges. But the leaders of the three civic leagues agree on one thing completely - they can't imagine a neighborhood without Old Dominion University in it.

David O'Dell came to Old Dominion as a student in 1978. A 1982 graduate in accounting, O'Dell worked for the Supreme Court of Virginia from 1985 until May 2014 when he became the Clerk of the Virginia Beach General District Court. As a proud alum, and as president of the Larchmont-Edgewater Civic League, O'Dell has had a unique perspective on Old Dominion's growth.

"With both sides in this long-term partnership, and that's what it is, we have tried to find a common ground, and work to come up with a solution that's going to be good for both parties," O'Dell said.

Naturally, that doesn't mean everyone is happy all the time. O'Dell said that's a predictable byproduct of diverse and eclectic neighborhoods like Larchmont and Edgewater, which were developed starting in 1907, a full generation before the school that was to become Old Dominion opened its doors.

O'Dell is invested in the success of the university, not only as an alum, but as a neighbor. He and his wife Melanie raised their sons in Larchmont, attending countless events on the campus. "It's my 13th year as civic league president. I've always felt the university has been a very good corporate partner for the neighborhood," he said.

Dale Ryder, O'Dell's counterpart with the Highland Park Civic League, has had a similar experience. A 1981 biology graduate from Old Dominion, Ryder "has seen tremendous growth and expansion and energy on this campus" since he was a student. "When I was on this campus as a student, it shut down at 5 p.m."

Ryder transitioned from living as a renter in the Highland Park neighborhood, to owning a house a few blocks from campus in that same neighborhood and running a landscaping business, Ryder Lawn Service. He and his wife Tammy enjoy when former student neighbors come by to visit when they return to campus, but would like to see that type of neighborhood engagement become a little more prevalent.

For him, that means the city needs to do a better job cracking down on absentee landlords in his neighborhood.

"I'd like to see ODU having a part in persuading the city to increase its enforcement of code violations," Ryder said. "My vision is to see more shifts on campus, from rental to more owner-occupied homes."

Thomas Harris had big shoes to fill when he assumed the presidency of the Lambert's Point Civic League in 2013. The woman he replaced, Ellen Harvey, had an outsized impact citywide in her 30 years leading the organization.

It was Harvey's diligent work as an advocate for the neighborhood that helped the Lambert's Point Community Center come into existence, a modern facility that hosts Old Dominion-sponsored events and camps year-round.

Harris said through the Community Center and other correspondence from the university, Lambert's Point feels far more like a partner to Old Dominion than it has at any point of the 37 years he has lived in the neighborhood.

"You reach out more than you had in the past. As a city group, we like to know what's happening, so we can participate and be a partner," said Harris, who recently retired after 31 years supervising delivery for Norfolk News Service, a local media agency.

Still, Harris said he would like to see more integration between Lambert's Point and the university, such as celebrating the shared history in the area, coordinating tours of the historic homes in Lambert's Point, former residences of industrial leaders of the past century. "We should tell our story together."

Meetings last fall where residents offered a range of opinions about Old Dominion's 20-year Master Plan provoked some strong feelings.

O'Dell said longer-term residents remember how the relationship was 25 years ago, and applaud the school's openness with the Master Plan discussions.

A generation ago, O'Dell said the university was less open in its dealings with the neighborhoods, setting back relationships. That changed with the plan for the University Village and Ted Constant Convocation Center, where neighbors felt like they were able to have their voices heard in a plan which brought economic development from the university across Hampton Boulevard, "and it has been a huge success," O'Dell said.

Harris urges students who live in Lambert's Point to "be more of a part of the neighborhood that you are living in. Make it your home. You'll feel safer, too."

Harris said the students can serve as role models for the boys and girls living in Lambert's Point, who aspire to go to a university like Old Dominion themselves someday. "Give the kids here an opportunity. Even a two-week program," he said. "Something like that would encourage a child to want to go to college, too."

An example of the relationship between the school and its neighborhood partners at its best was in the re-establishment of football in 2009 at Old Dominion University. Efforts led by former Vice President of Finance Bob Fenning meant the neighborhoods had their voices heard about traffic flow, safety, parking and other issues that accompany boisterous Monarch boosters.

Now, six Saturdays every fall, the campus and its surrounding neighborhoods pulse with energy. "I'd like to think that was really the crown jewel of achievement in partnering with the neighborhoods," O'Dell said.

Ryder is a season ticketholder for ODU football and men's and women's basketball. "I plan on staying here the rest of my life, if that gives you an idea about my feelings about the university as a neighbor," he said.

This story appears in Old Dominion University's Community Connection newsletter, produced twice per year by ODU's Office of University Relations and Office of Community Engagement. For more information about Community Connection or to suggest a story for the publication, contact Brendan O'Hallarn at bohallar@odu.edu