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Mayor's office: Changes to Monument Ave project are ‘not remarkable,’ pre-planning underway

Monument Avenue Richmond
Posted at 8:18 PM, May 03, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-04 04:44:31-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- After the CBS 6 Problem Solvers first reported a shift in leadership of the "Reimagine Monument Avenue" project, the City of Richmond said pre-planning is underway to determine the next steps in transformation initiatives.

Nearly two years after Confederate statues started coming down on Monument Avenue, Courtney Kazalski said she still wonders what will go in their place.

“The fact that it's called Monument Avenue, I think it's kind of sad there are no more monuments on there in general," she said. "I understand why they're taken down, but I feel like adding new monuments or new designs, even if it's like a garden, would be nice.”

The city has replaced the spots where statues once stood with green spaces, but Kazalski questioned if something bigger is on the way.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts used to be in charge of the "Reimagine Monument Avenue" project, which was described as a community-driven effort to redesign several historical sites with input from artists, historians, and urban planners. Kazalski said she was on board with the VMFA's participation.

"The VMFA, just looking around the sculpture garden, and everything there, is so beautiful," she said. "So I feel like they would add a lot of character to the area."

When the museum was in charge of the project, the pre-existing community group "Reimagine Monument Avenue" invited the VMFA to collaborate throughout the process.

Group member, Katherine Driggs, said the organization couldn't agree with each and had competing priorities, ultimately folding in September. Driggs said some members of the group did not feel valued by museum leadership and pointed to a quote from VMFA director, Alex Nyerges, from January 2021 during a committee meeting.

According to a transcript, Nyerges said he wanted the VMFA to "dictate structure and organization. What we do not want to have is a community-based group of well-meaning citizens that are not going to be able to create the grand vision that this really requires."

However, museum spokesperson, Amy Peck, said the comment was taken out of context, and in the same meeting, Nyerges said he wanted everyone's voices to be heard.

"The Director's comments, in their totality, were arguing for the input of both citizens AND subject matter experts, both of which would be critical to a project of this magnitude. To be inclusive, sustainable, and forward-thinking, a project on the scale of the Monument Avenue initiative -- on Richmond’s most recognized public streets, surrounded by residential dwellings and businesses -- requires input from the community, urban planners, artists, archivists, historians, and government leadership in its planning and implementation," Peck said.

Peck added the museum sent representatives to several meetings held by the group even though a formal process for the project had not yet been created.

Governor Northam's administration removed the VMFA from the project in December 2021 after he transferred ownership of the Lee Circle from the Commonwealth of Virginia to the City of Richmond just before Governor Youngkin took office.

That meant the VMFA, a state-owned and operated institution, no longer had any skin in the game. However, the museum had already spent $100,000 taxpayer dollars to develop a plan and timeline out of the $1 million appropriated in the state budget.

Peck said about $50,000 was spent on staff time, and the other half was spent on public outreach initiatives.

With the VMFA out of the picture, the city will control the future of Monument Avenue, but Kazalski expressed confusion about the timeline.

“I definitely hope they figure it out and, and make a plan because right now, it seems like there's no plan," Kazalski said.

City council members said they also were unaware of changes to the project including Representatives Mike Jokes, Andreas Addison, and Kristen Nye.

“I mean, Tyler, to be honest with you, I didn't even know that, so I appreciate you reaching out," Councilor Nye said.

In a newsletter to her constituents last week, 2nd District Councilwoman Katherine Jordan, who represents a stretch of Monument Avenue, said she was working to get new information from the administration.

"We have received outreach from residents recently regarding the status of the former sites of monuments on Monument Avenue, as well as interest in the larger reimagining process, and questions about potential changes to traffic flow patterns," Jordan said. "Recent coverage on the topic has highlighted that the efforts to engage the community in the process of transforming Monument Ave are in flux. We are working on obtaining more information from the administration and hope to share a more substantive update soon."

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Mayor Levar Stoney's Office called the transition "not remarkable" or "unexpected." Spokesperson Jim Nolan said the mayor wanted to allow the city to "take a breath" before proceeding, noting the pedestals were only completely removed a few weeks ago.

"The city is in the early pre-planning stages of formulating a process and identifying potential resources for the project. The mayor recognizes and understands the sense of urgency but requests the same patience it has taken to invest and build out a heritage campus honoring the enslaved in Shockoe Bottom," Nolan said.

He added the project will be fueled by extensive public feedback including input from the arts community. Nolan said the VMFA is still invited for collaboration, but since the VMFA reports to the state, Governor Youngkin would have to approve it.

Kazalski said she would like to have a voice in the project as a neighbor but said she wants to see more transparency moving forward.

“I walk on Monument Avenue every single day, so I feel like I'd like to be a part of the decision," she said. “Maybe if they would, the city, or anyone, could maybe keep us up to speed with their thoughts, that would be nice."

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