The future of Monroe Park

The Monroe Park Master Plan spans 130 pages giving an exhaustive look at the park’s history, faults, and future.

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Spanning 130 pages, the Monroe Park Master Plan (PDF, 70MB) is an exhaustive look at Monroe Park’s history and faults — usually one causing the other. Painting a picture of a park once the center of a bustling southern town, it details many possible ways to return Monroe to its turn-of-the-century glory.

The document carries with it some harsh descriptions of current facilities as well, and points out specific (from the Monroe Park Planning Board’s point of view) hindrances to future success.

The first 50+ pages deal mainly with the park’s history, presenting it as a historical site that could support a community that demands the public space.

William Byrd I purchased the 7.36 acres of land late in the 17th century. Covering a large portion of present day western Richmond, the rural land was bought and sold to different parties over the years. Around 1840, with rapid expansion taking its toll on the populace of Richmond, the City caught public park fever and began investing in land conservation and public space.

Hollywood Cemetery was one of the first of the public space projects, and a “capital square” was next on the list. Originally planned as a four acre purchase, City Council cut it back to three, and, in 1851, the then titled “Western Square” became the first Richmond-owned public park.

Though outside the city limits at the time, The Virginia State Agricultural Society used the land for an annual agricultural fair. Hailed for its success, the fair moved to a larger lot by 1865. This made room for the park space as a Civil War Confederate camp. Sixteen barracks were constructed on the quite urban landscape. The barracks were torn down some time near the end of the war, and the flattened acreage was prime for reinvention.

In 1869, City Council annexed the Fan and Oregon Hill neighborhoods from neighboring Henrico county, and a civil engineer was brought in to construct a public square. The park was then named Monroe Square, after Virginia-born President James Monroe. Lt. Col. Albert Ordway, the post-war occupying federal officer stationed in the park’s neighborhood, advocated strongly for improving the square as a public space.

In 1875, Wilfred Emory Cutshaw, a Virginia Military Institute graduate, took the role of City Engineer. Most of the improvements he made in his 30 years as Civil Engineer remain intact today. The original path plan, fountain placement, and a majority of the trees match the plan written over 130 years ago.

A lack of funds for the next 100 years limited improvements to the park. The central Checkers Building itself is constructed on the remains of the former center square building.

The next bulk of the Park Plan details several possible ways to improve each affected detail. From inadequate path lighting, to non-ADA compliant restrooms, to possible trip hazards, every nook and cranny is called on for improvement.

Not all options are superficial: raising paths to grass level and developing better irrigation systems will help with storm water issues and area flooding, returning most water to the soil as opposed to the City’s sewer system.

Better angled light fixtures will direct the luminescence down and inward toward the park, reducing light pollution. Even the color and warmth of the beam is bisected and presented in different lights for the city to consider for the final project.

The plan culminates with a recommendation strategy in three phases and an explanation of a post-renovation non-profit organization overseeing the park.

Phase One calls for the most physically demanding renovations: laying a brick perimeter path, replacing out-of-date storm drains, demolish existing paths, and installing stone dust paving along existing curb lines, and many more. Everything must go.

A new circulating water pump system will replace the old; “engineered soil” will be be installed in specific areas. One of the many proposed food kiosks will be built along with a set of movable chairs and tables. Trees that do not fit in to the original turn of the century plan, or “Period of Significance,” will be removed, including some “ornamental” trees and evergreens; 62 trees in all are on the chopping block.

Phase Two will consist of more hard construction on the center of the park. The Checkers Building will receive the brunt of the work. A brick plaza will be placed on the north side of the Checkers Building, and the bathrooms will be enlarged and made ADA compliant. The facade of the Checkers Building will be renovated, and the second floor will be hollowed out to make a kind of open gazebo.

A fenced playground will be built, including a giant Virginia map in the paving pattern. This will replace the grassy area to the south of the building.

Phase Three will consist of minor and less critical elements to the park. Information kiosks, a water spray park, and a petanque/quoits court are on the list but not described as not “crucial to the overall success” of the park.

The last part of the plan deals with developing a non-profit body to manage the park. In City Council meetings, Fan District Councilman Charles Samuels said the oversight committee would be similar to the one managing Maymont Park, just south of Carytown.

The plan details the committee’s role as fund raisers that would see to the financial security of the park. It would consist of 12 to 15 members, meeting quarterly with representatives of the local community including property owners, retailers, near by neighborhoods, VCU, and the City of Richmond. A “strong director” with experience in real estate management, design, business, and public space would lead the organization.

The City of Richmond would then “transfer operating authority and responsibility to this new entity from the city.” The non-profit organization would also have the right to collect all revenue generated from the park.

Revenue would come in the form of food kiosks and events, in addition to the work done by the overseeing board.

A security force would be developed and present in the park from 7am to 11 pm, with one to two unarmed officers patrolling at any one time, funded by the park’s revenue.

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Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner is a freelance journalist living in the Bellevue neighborhood of Richmond’s Northside. He is a regular contributor to Pacifica’s Free Speech Radio News, and is a volunteer manager with WRIR 97.3 LP-FM. He specializes in reporting on local politics and the environment, but spends most of his time looking at food blogs with his tiny dog in his lap.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. Its hard to believe anyone could be against this. This is a much needed renovation.

  2. Lauren on said:

    I love it!

    Although I would have to say I think a water spray park IS crucial to the overall success.

  3. This is part one of a three part series. On Wednesday we’ll have a piece up about some of the criticisms of this plan.

  4. Rob Sterling on said:

    What’s the proposed source of revenue for the renovation?

  5. Chris Elford on said:

    Go Richmond! Great article.

  6. Claudia on said:

    This is great news! When I was a kid (early ’70’s) there was a playground facing Main Street. I used to play there with my dad while my mother worked Saturdays at the main library. I was sorry to see it go. I look forward the revitalization of a very neglected park.

  7. Monroe Park is in a key spot for the city and needs to be better maintained and attractive. Col. Wilfred Emory Cutshaw was a great leader and visionary for Richmond parks and deserves more credit for shaping the city. Looking forward to the rest of this series.

  8. Populous is an adjective, populace is a noun.

  9. This is actually a great plan for the park. I’d love to see this happen, versus VCU buying the property and building more university buildings on it.

  10. What are you talking about Will Weaver? VCU has never proposed building on or acquiring this park. VCU has totally supported the process that led to this plan. Why post something so stupid.

  11. anonymous on said:

    VCU did at one time want to take down all the trees and make Monroe Park their own little ‘quad’.

  12. I Love Monroe Park on said:

    The plan will make for great improvements to the Park. Unfortunately, in its current state, the feedings that occur during the weekends cause so much litter in the park that surrounding neighborhoods are sustaining very negative impacts and the use of the Park by all community members is being stunted. When will people respect this historic greenspace and take responsibility for the trash they bring into the Park? Having plastic bags and styrofoam plates and cups blown into the community and into the James River is a major problem with no solution in the works.

  13. Joe: Basically what #11 said. I was not aware VCU had backed off on developing Monroe Park, or that it had essentially dropped the VCU 2020 plan (the current administration states they have “recalibrated” the plan – I assume “recalibration” involves the construction of parking decks all over the place).

    Dr. Trani was EXTREMELY aggressive about expanding VCU before he left office, and the original VCU 2020 plan included the acquisition and development of Monroe Park.

  14. Charles Woodson on said:

    Sorry, Will. 2020 plan never mentioned VCU taking over the Park. I would place a conservation easement on the Park to make sure it never gets sold but Trani would never warn anybody in advance like that. Not his style.

  15. csb on said:

    This is a much-needed renovation, and I can’t wait to see the final results. Anybody against this plan is thinking short-sighted and is too focused on their own interests. This is money well-spent, and I look forward to seeing the end result.

  16. Scott Burger on said:

    From Todd Woodson:

    “Monroe Park is Richmond’s oldest and most historic municipal park, listed on both the state and the federal registers of historic places. I don’t think this is appropriate and I fear it is a measure foreshadowing a takeover of the park by VCU and the proposed lease with the Monroe Park Foundation.”

  17. Paul Hammond on said:

    While there is general opposition to VCU taking over Monroe park, I have been waiting a dozen years for the City rescue the park. Many people have been waiting a lot longer. If VCU has the ability and will to get this done, I’m not sure why they shouldn’t be allowed to. It would still be a public park and we would finally be able to get some use out of it. Certainly this would be better than the status quo.

  18. Scott Burger on said:

    Paul, why should citizens have to settle for a VCU takeover? This City government funds Center Stage and manages to rush the Redskins deal, but can’t take care of its oldest and most historic PUBLIC park?

    There is a renovation plan for Monroe Park that is ready to go. Why has it not been put in action? Make no mistake about it, this is purely political and represents a lot of scheming by VCU.

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