Renovations could push homeless out of Monroe Park

A proposed lease agreement would have the Richmond City Council lease Monroe Park to the Monroe Park Conservancy for 30 years at a cost of $1 a year. If the lease agreement is approved, the Monroe Park Conservancy must raise $3.3 million to begin renovations. Photo by Brooke Marsh.

Matt Leonard
Staff Writer

The Richmond City Council may lease Monroe Park to a nonprofit organization for renovations, and some local activists are worried the move will effectively push the homeless out.

A nonprofit called the Monroe Park Conservancy was set up to plan the renovations and raise money for the required construction. The conservancy is made up of individuals representing VCU, the public and the city equally, said conservancy executive Alice Massie.

A proposed lease agreement would have the city lease Monroe Park to the conservancy for 30 years at a cost of $1 a year. If the lease agreement is approved the conservancy must raise $3.3 million to begin construction.

Massie said the nonprofit would allow more donors to donate money to the park renovations, whether it is corporate money or private money.

VCU spends $130,000 per year on Monroe Park, Massie said. If a lease is signed, VCU’s spending is expected to increase to $200,000 each year. Richmond spends $10,000 a year on Monroe Park, Massie said.

“The park belongs to the city of Richmond and it will always belong to the city of Richmond,” Massie said.

Local activists, however, see planned renovations as another attempt to drive out the homeless population.

“The plans themselves were about gentrifying the park and making it a place where homeless people won’t want to go,” said Mo Karn, a local activist, speaking of the 2010 plans for park renovations.

Karn said she thinks the plans have remained the same, but planners are using a different name. The conservancy was known as the Monroe Park Advisory Counsel in 2010, she said.

The conservancy insists there are no plans to rid Monroe Park of homelessness.

“It is a public park and it will remain a public park,” Massie said. “The park will be closed for 12 months for construction and the homeless population will have to find somewhere else to go for that time, but they are welcome back after that.”

Karn said the park being closed for a year is the problem. She works with the organization Food Not Bombs, which has fed people in Monroe Park for 20 years.

“In 2010, they told us to go to the Conrad Center. They wanted to centralize the entire homeless population to this one center,” Karn said. “But the center lost funding and it no longer exists, so now there isn’t even an alternative.”

Karn insists she isn’t completely against the idea of renovations, just renovations that require closing the entire park for any period of time.

“I don’t think we should start leasing out our public parks until the public says they want that to happen,” Karn said.

The planned renovations for the park include subsurface and aboveground updates. Subsurface construction would be done by the city of Richmond and would include putting in new wiring and sewer systems, which have not been replaced since the 1920s. Massie said the conservancy would pay for above ground updates. The lease agreement would include an exit clause.

“At any point if someone doesn’t like the way something is going the lease agreement can be voided and the park goes back to the city,” Massie said.

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