Gov. Ralph Northam and several community organizations want Richmond officials to wait for more public input and a comprehensive plan before any of the empty statue pedestals on Monument Avenue are removed.
While city officials characterize the plans they recently introduced to move the bases as only temporary, state officials and several local residents say they would prefer a broader public discussion about how the pedestals that held Confederate statues could be repurposed to create new public art or monuments.
Nearly a year after Mayor Levar Stoney ordered the removal of the city’s Confederate monuments, City Council staff members and Stoney administration officials are working to develop recommendations for the final disposition of the statues and their plinths.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, meanwhile, is beginning to work with state officials and community members to “reimagine” Monument Avenue.
On Monday, the Richmond Planning Commission declined to recommend whether the City Council should authorize the mayor’s administration to remove the bases for the J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis and “Stonewall” Jackson statues on Monument Avenue, along with the one for the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Libby Hill.
The commissioners did not vote on whether to endorse the removal of the Matthew Fontaine Maury monument’s pedestal and several smaller monuments on Monument Avenue and in Monroe Park after ending their meeting early Monday evening because of technical difficulties.
The commission did, however, endorse plans for the removal of the A.P. Hill statue at the intersection of Hermitage Road and Laburnum Avenue, citing traffic safety concerns there. The city has not yet removed the Hill monument because the Confederate general is buried under it. City officials said there is a pending agreement with Hill’s relatives to relocate his remains to a property in Culpeper County.
In a message sent to city officials Saturday afternoon, Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, implored the Planning Commission against voting for the city administration’s plans to remove the pedestals.
“Perhaps at the end of the planning process it will be decided that the pedestals should be removed, though once they are removed there is really very little practical chance that they would be returned to the avenue,” Mercer said in his letter. “I would ask that the Commission please consider letting this planning process take place before making any decisions related to the disposition of these pedestals.”
The state is planning a similar approach with the state-owned Robert E. Lee statue. Northam ordered the removal of the statue last June, but the Supreme Court of Virginia is still weighing an appeal while an injunction continues to bar the governor’s administration from taking down the monument.
Mercer said the state will remove the Lee statue once the case is resolved, but intends to leave the pedestal until the VMFA finishes its Monument Avenue project.
Alena Yarmosky, a spokesperson for Northam, said the governor has proposed nearly $11 million in state funding for the project, including $1 million for the planning process.
Katie Payne, a representative for the VMFA, told the Planning Commission on Monday that the museum is hiring a project director and support staff to develop a plan that’s due to state officials by Sept. 1, 2022.
Payne did not say whether museum officials also want the city to wait before removing the pedestals.
“This is obviously going to be a complex negotiation between the state, the city and community,” she said. “I think our job is to facilitate as best we can all the opinions that might come in. We look forward to the process.”
About half of the public speakers at Monday’s meeting said they have been involved in discussions about the monuments as members of Reimagining Monument Avenue, a new nonprofit made up of civic leaders, activists, historians, architects and artists interested in developing a shared vision for the corridor. The group’s website says the VMFA is part of the organization.
“What we’re hearing is that those bases, those pedestals, the significance of their placement and their construction, might be a part of their future messaging,” said Robert Steele, a local architect working with the collective. “Let’s take a moment, take a breath, pause and reflect upon this.”
While some people at Monday’s meeting asked the city to wait before removing the pedestals to encourage more public engagement, several said separating the pedestals from the statues or recontextualizing them would be illegal, citing a letter sent by Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, to the Planning Commission last week.
In the letter, Reeves alleged that the city is not observing the state law governing the installation and removal of war memorials, as the monuments are now in a “severely altered” state.
“The intent of the final legislation was to prohibit any alteration to these monuments,” the letter says. “The monuments are invaluable and non-replaceable.”
Last year, the city received requests from about two dozen historical organizations and museums about acquiring the monuments. City officials say they are minding how new owners would intend to install and contextualize the monuments, but add that it remains unclear what the city will do with the statues.
The city initially moved the monuments to a sewage treatment plant last summer, but officials have declined to say whether they have been moved to a new location since then.