RICHMOND – If the renovation work stays on schedule, Monroe Park will reopen next spring with improvements in energy-efficient lighting, walkways and an updated stormwater management system. It will also feature amenities such as pavilions, a ping-pong table, new outdoor furniture and a “Portland Loo.”
But there is more going on behind the scenes besides refurbishing a public park. Rival factions are battling over which century to drag the park into. One group wants to modernize the park with contemporary features; the other wants to make Monroe Park look as it did during its heyday in the early 1900s.
The city of Richmond has leased the park to the Monroe Park Conservancy, a nonprofit group. Under the terms of the lease, the conservancy has raised half of the $6 million needed for renovation and will manage the park once it reopens.
The group wants to adopt the same model that worked with Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia and Madison Square Park in New York. The goal is to keep the park green but bring in business and features to attract all types of visitors.
The Monroe Park Conservancy recently faced scrutiny when the Richmond Free Press reported that the city quietly appropriated $833,659 for Monroe Park. Alice Massie, the president of the conservancy, says those funds are part of the $3 million the city promised to provide when it unanimously approved the lease in March 2014.
Residents of Oregon Hill, the neighborhood just south of the park, oppose the conservancy and its ideas for the public space.
Led by Charles Woodson, Oregon Hill wants to stick to the master plan formulated by the city and the Monroe Park Advisory Council in 2008. That plan focused on making Monroe Park look as it did in during its “historic period of significance” in 1904, with Victorian-era construction.
Oregon Hill residents also oppose leasing the park to the conservancy, fearing the park will not remain open to the public.
Massie and Woodson have made caretaking of the park a priority since 2003, when the Monroe Park Advisory Council was formed and they were two of its members. The advisory council was the driving force behind the master plan.
“It’s a plan, but it’s not construction designs,” Massie said. “The master plan basically was the outline, but then you actually have to make it happen.”
The construction designs were approved in 2010 and updated in 2015. But residents of Oregon Hill say Massie and the conservancy have not been forthcoming about the features they have in mind for the park.
On Thursday, both groups attended a meeting of the Urban Design Committee, an advisory panel created by the Richmond City Council, and discussed some of the features planned for the park.
One of them was the Portland Loo, a public toilet designed for utilitarianism, not comfort, to discourage somebody making it a more permanent residence. The loo faced scrutiny because one proposal is to place it across the street from the last private residential home bordering Monroe Park.
“All these VCU buildings encircling Monroe Park – there is only one holdout. Why is it that they end up putting a loo across from the single-family house of the last remaining holdout?” said Charles Pool of the Oregon Hill Home Improvement Council.
Over the years, Oregon Hill residents have complained about Virginia Commonwealth University encroaching on their neighborhood. To Pool, it is no coincidence that the board of the Monroe Park Conservancy includes three VCU staff members.
The location of the loo has not been finalized. Members of the Urban Design Committee and the conservancy are looking for alternative locations for the public toilet.
The city will hand the park’s reins over to the conservancy once construction is completed. Then, the Monroe Park Conservancy will manage the property.
One of the issues that Oregon Hill has raised is corporate involvement in funding the park’s renovations. The neighborhood fears that if corporations donate large sums of money, they will receive preferential treatment.
In May, for example, the financial services company Capital One held an event at the park, which has been closed to the public since November. When the event was over and the tents were gone, damage had been done to the interior of the park.
Oregon Hill residents raised the issue on Thursday and brought pictures for evidence. Massie said Capital One had rented the park a year in advance, which is why the company had permission to use the park after it was closed.
Massie said that if the conservancy is watching the park and a lessee violates the agreement, the lessee’s insurance would have to cover the damage.