Richmond urban designers reject Lee Circle plan: 'It's a beautiful salad that no one can eat'

Posted at 6:25 PM, Sep 29, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-29 18:51:14-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Richmond urban designers moved to reject a plan that would determine what's been called a temporary future for Monument Avenue's Lee Circle.

For the first time Thursday, the $100,000 landscaping design went before the city's Urban Design Committee (UDC), a group that makes recommendations on public projects that impact community appearance.

The committee was supposed to have already discussed the proposal during a September 8 meeting, but not enough of its members were present to proceed with a meeting.

The city's Department of Public Works partnered with the firm VHB to develop a landscaping project that would fill the circle with trees and plants.

City architect Jeannie Welliver told UDC Thursday the design was intentional to keep people from gathering within the space. The plan includes mulch pathways, but they're only intended for maintenance workers.

“With this plan, we couldn't encourage pedestrians to occupy that," Welliver said. "There are no crosswalks. There's no pedestrian safety improvements to get you to the center of the circle. It was never designed as such."

Torrence Robinson, Deputy Director of Operations for Public Works added, "It is not advantageous to pedestrians walking, because you could exit the circle at any point which would create problems for vehicular traffic."

But members of the committee pushed back, emphasizing that the space was heavily occupied in 2020 as protesters gathered at the circle to speak out against racial injustice. In fact, the circle was recognized as the epicenter of a national movement following the death of George Floyd.

UDC member Jessie Gemmer asked for clarification on who made the decision to restrict access to the circle and why, considering people were able and allowed to access the space when the Lee statue was standing. She also asked if the circle was redesigned to include safe access, would it change the city's approach.

"The way I feel about the landscaping plan is that it's essentially the same as the jersey barrier where it is meant to exclude access. I know that's the point because it is a traffic circle, but I think that is a position that has emotional, political ramifications," Gemmer said.

But Welliver and Robinson continued to emphasize that the space is currently a traffic circle and that when the state owned the property, people who stepped foot onto it would be asked to leave.

“Historically, this has not been a pedestrian plaza since its inception in 1888," Welliver said.

UDC Chair Andrea Quilici responded, "I understand, but also, things change."

Committee member Charles Woodson said he thought the plan was "gorgeous" but questioned if people would be able to fully enjoy it since the public could only view it while driving around the circle.

"All the interior plantings are just going to be lost and will only be seen by the few neighbors that can look out their window," Woodson said. "It's a beautiful salad that nobody can eat."

The group also raised red flags about the costs and efforts to maintain the plantings. Welliver said a traffic circle of its size, which is about three-fourths of an acre, has not been landscaped in the city before.

"We talked a little bit about maintenance and the failure of maintenance in other areas. So what is going to guarantee that maintenance will be maintained, weeds will be taken away? We understand you have a maintenance plan, but there's some concerns from the public," Quilici said.

"We are currently gearing up to not only maintain this, but what our current maintenance responsibilities are," Robinson responded. "Again, we feel that with an adequate irrigation system, that would help maintain that. We plan on hiring staff now that will monitor locations like this plan, and it will be visited much more frequently than what we have in the past."

UDC member Luigi Mignardi raised similar concerns and asked if the city considered a simpler plan that would be less expensive to implement and maintain, especially since the landscaping is being described as temporary.

“I mean $100,000 and calling it temporary, but having no plan for it to be designed yet, it sort of seems a little wasteful," Mignardi said. "It's a lot of plant material to be called temporary."

The plan is considered temporary because the city has committed to implementing a long-term project to "reimagine" Monument Avenue, but there's no word from the city on a timeline for when that may begin. The state was originally in charge of those initiatives, but the Commonwealth quietly transferred leadership of the project to the city before Governor Youngkin took office.

“We don't know when this is going to happen. It could be a year, could be ten. It could be even 50," Quilici said.

Given the uncertainty of when a long-term plan could be underway and the historical significance of the circle, Quilici asked if the city had embarked on any community engagement opportunities with neighborhood associations or constituents before presenting the proposal.

"This Lee Circle did not go before the community, Monument Avenue Commission," Welliver answered. "It didn't."

Three people who spoke during public comment echoed calls for community engagement.

"We feel it is critical that the future of this space be determined in a transparent and open process and not decided through dealings made behind closed doors without notice to the public," said Alex Criqui, the executive director of public arts organization Reclaiming the Monument. 

One Fan resident said, "We are setting a tone for healing and for how we are going to come together as a community that is very heavily divided these days. And it's an opportunity for us to do something with it and to set an example for the rest of the country, if not the world."

Alice Massie, a Monument Avenue resident, said she was concerned about the plan due to the fact that it's unknown how "temporary" it'd be.

"This plan by Public Works didn't have any public input. That leads to a lot of questions," Massie said. "Nobody wants to see a failed garden with $100,000 of failed plants that have already gone into other medians and died."

She encouraged the city to take the $100,000 in funds and use them to engage the community, which was an idea floated by the UDC.

"Until you have that vehicle of expression, you don't have any direction," Massie said.

Other neighbors who submitted written comments prior to Thursday's meeting agreed with the intention to discourage gathering within the circle but questioned if the proposed plan was restrictive enough.

"We had many concerns during the 2020 Unrest and the same concerns now flood back to the present with this site plan," wrote one family who lives nearby. "What is the objective of the plan? None of the other monument locations have walkways within. The pathways encourage walking. Are there any plans by the city to monitor activities and enforce laws? With all the cover that these trees, grasses, shrubs and perennials provide, are we concerned about people "camping out" or performing any other illegal activities?"

Ultimately, UDC voted to reject the plan while calling for the city to still remove the fencing and barricades.

UDC's vote serves as a recommendation to the city's Planning Commission, which will have the final say over the proposal.

Planning Director Kevin Vonck said he had no comment on UDC's decision.



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