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Shifting Ground

A plan for the future of Monroe Park evokes arguments from the past.

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A proposal to lease Monroe Park to a private conservancy could go before City Council as early as next week, reigniting a debate about who can use it, and when.

A master plan developed by the Monroe Park Advisory Council has remained in limbo for more than three years while city officials have mulled whether to lease the park to a conservancy. It would be overseen by a board made up of city employees, community members and representatives of Virginia Commonwealth University.

The city has budgeted $3 million toward park improvements, with the Monroe Park Conservancy working to raise an additional $3 million.

The 9-acre park primarily is a cut-through for VCU students heading to class and a place for the homeless to spend the day. During a half-hour span last Thursday, fewer than a dozen people passed through. One was a lost study-abroad student. Two were tourists from Beijing on their way to the Fan.

Mark Meadows and Rachel Wasilewski, who work in admissions for VCU's School of Engineering, cut through the park on their way to work. They offered plenty of ideas about how the park could be improved: More benches, for one, and soil to replace the dried-out dirt spread throughout the park, would go a long way.

"Who's going to sit in a dirt patch to study?" Wasilewski asks.

"I see people with chess boards on top of trash cans," Meadows adds.

They say they'd like to see the park used more like a traditional quadrangle by students.

At one point, the park's lone occupant sat on a bench near the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. He says he's been homeless for eight months and identified himself only as Mr. X. Asked what changes he'd like to see, he replies, "Not a thing."

The master plan calls for improved walkways, revamped irrigation and a cafe, among other changes.

"All the plans and construction documents are done," says Charles Woodson, Oregon Hill's representative on the advisory council that developed the initiative. The neighborhood lies just south of the park.

Woodson calls the plan "wonderful," but says he's opposed to privatizing the park. It has served as a gathering place since its founding in 1851, he says.

"This would be a sea change for this park," Woodson says. "This park symbolizes our freedom of speech and our freedom to congregate. If you ask yourself what the citizens of Richmond have to gain from this, it's really nothing."

Woodson says he fears that if the conservancy takes control, it could prohibit such activities as Food Not Bombs' regular meal delivery in the park to the poor and homeless.

Conservancy President Alice Massie declines to comment on the lease details until they're presented to the public. She says conservancy ownership offers a chance to restore what once was a vibrant gathering place.

"Do we just accept what it is now," Massie asks, "or do you take risk that's not really a very big risk for the city and attempt to do something that could be great?"

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