Richmond has no plan to reimagine Monument Avenue, years after statues removal: 'I'm disappointed'

Posted at 5:30 PM, Apr 17, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-17 17:30:13-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- The future of Monument Avenue in Richmond remains unclear four years after multiple Confederate statues were removed and Mayor Levar Stoney said he would embark on a planning process to develop a long-term vision for the historic district.

The Robert E. Lee statue, was once the largest Confederate statue in the United States, was removed from Monument Avenue in 2021. Mayor Stoney ordered the emergency removal of the street's other Confederate monuments amid protests against racial injustice in 2020.

“I was all for the monument coming down," Monument Avenue resident Caroline Bowers, who participated in the 2020 rallies and marches, said. “I’ve had people say, ‘Oh my, you must be disappointed living on Monument Avenue.’ And I say, ‘Oh, it's quite the opposite. I'm thrilled that I live here and saw this happen.'"

Now, the former Lee Circle is filled with mulch, plants, and trees. Bowers said its current state diminishes the historical significance of the space.

“I’m not sure I can even put into words what I see other than disappointment. There's nothing there that has any meaning or purpose," Bowers said. “I was hoping for maybe a park-like setting where you could come and you could sit and you could kind of feel and reminisce what happened here.”

Monument Avenue Plan Update 2024
Monument Avenue resident Caroline Bowers

After Monument Avenue lost most of its monuments, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts was tapped to lead a major community-driven plan to reimagine the area. State funding was allocated for the project. That project quietly folded in 2021 and responsibilities were turned over from the VMFA to the city. The city replaced the sites with plantings.

None of the city's landscaping plans were presented to the public for input, but the planting project at the former Lee Circle went before public bodies for consideration.

“I don't think any of us saw this as being an accomplishable project," Todd Woodson, a member of Richmond's Urban Design Committee, said.

Woodson voted with a majority of members in 2022 to reject the Lee Circle plantings.

Monument Avenue Plan Update 2024

The committee, which offers recommendations to the city's Planning Commission, cited many concerns with the plan including that it would be difficult to maintain.

Woodson said that theory had proven true.

"They came out here on the hottest day in July and planted trees, and that was an obvious suicide mission for the trees. They just withered and died. It was sort of painful to watch," Woodson said. "Just throwing $100,000 at something and having someone plant plants and having a sprinkler on a timer does not a garden make."

Monument Avenue Plan Update 2024
Richmond Urban Design Committee member Todd Woodson

City officials and some residents cited safety concerns about opening the circle to the public, including the busy flow of traffic surrounding the area. However, Woodson disagrees.

“By the square footage here, if you don't allow public gatherings, then it seems to me to be a waste," Woodson said. "I think this means an awful lot to a lot of people, myself included. This space represents a rebirth, and people should be allowed to celebrate that."

Ultimately, the planning commission and Richmond City Council approved the plan, despite the urban design committee's recommendation. Planning Director Kevin Vonck said at the time that there would be future opportunities to permanently reimagine Monument Avenue.

When the plans were initially presented two years ago, Mayor Stoney emphasized that they were temporary, which members of the urban design committee and planning commission were skeptical of. At the time, Mayor Stoney said a permanent vision was still in the works and he would want input from the public.

“We will engage the community that lives right there on Monument Avenue, and the community at large. So what I'm asking for, is just a little patience," Stoney said in April 2022.

Fast forward to April 2024, and Stoney now says he has no plans for the future of Monument Avenue, adding the planters will remain in place when he leaves office at the end of the year.

“I believe that the investment from the city particularly should go into areas that need it the most. And I look at places in Southside, as we’ve discussed for the last year, that Southside is in need. I think we should focus also on developing the area in Shockoe Bottom where the enslaved should be memorialized. That should be the focus. That’s going to be the focus of my administration. There may be an administration that comes after me, my successor, that takes a different approach," Stoney told CBS 6.

Monument Avenue Plan Update 2024
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney

Richmond City Councilmember Katherine Jordan, who represents the area of the former Lee Circle and Monument Avenue, declined an interview.

Her liaison told CBS 6 in an email that she doesn't expect to move forward with planning efforts until a new mayor and governor are elected.

“Monument Avenue needs to be reimagined. It's such a wealth of history, and the architecture is so beautiful, and it really deserves the best," Woodson said.

At a minimum, Bowers hopes historical context can be added to the space.

“Have some historical markers up. Explain what happened and why it happened. Show some of the pictures of the people that came out here and used their voice and made this change," Bowers said. "I'm disappointed with the outcome here."


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