"D'ya think I'll be ticketed?" asked a well-tailored woman as she locked her car under tree shade in Monroe Park and strode toward a Sunday service at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.
She was referring to the summer brouhaha that was sparked on July 2 when officers ticketed 46 cars in, and around, the midtown park during the weekday taping of a morning radio show at the nearby Landmark Theater. When City Manager Calvin Jamison suggested that the tickets be forgiven the public outcry was immediate and the sentiment consistent: Say what? A parking regulation is a parking regulation even if the offender is an out-of-towner and attending a charity event.
But issues of fairness aside, Richmonders are missing the bigger point. Why should cars be parked in Monroe Park at all?
This highly visible, urban (but sylvan) spoke where U.S. 1 crosses Franklin and Main streets, and Park and Floyd avenues splay out to define the Fan District is a historic and delicate late-19th-century park. The pentagon-shaped park offers a green respite from the surrounding, bustling city and provides some sense of campus for Virginia Commonwealth University.
But just because the park has unusually wide sidewalks and curbing, is this reason to trash the space any time Landmark officials decide to put cars there, churchgoers want a convenient parking space, or VCU students are moving in and out of nearby dorms?
On opening nights at New York's Guggenheim or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, do patrons leave their cars in Central Park? At presidential inaugurals, are vehicles sprawled on the Mall? I don't think so. Why then do Richmonders feel entitled to trash one of their oldest parks with their vehicles? Has civic pride dipped so low that we don't even notice or care that we increasingly turn Monroe Park into a temporary parking lot?
"But where are we going to park?" is the knee-jerk whine.
Granted, that is a problem: The density of this part of the city has reached the point where immediate parking solutions are needed and larger transportation issues addressed.
In at least three American cities, parking lots have been situated under historic parks. In Los Angeles, Pershing Square was rebuilt atop a sunken parking deck. The Boston Common, which dates back to the 17th century, slopes gently westward and hides a massive parking structure. The most successful of these underground facilities is in Newark, where the downtown Military Park has been reconfigured atop a parking garage that serves the handsome, recently opened New Jersey Center for the Performing Arts.
Would a Monroe Park underground garage be expensive? Yes. Aesthetically pleasing? Well, that would also be a challenge. But it's something we should consider. True, some trees would be lost, but the space is already overgrown with an unrelenting canopy of trees that should be vigorously thinned out. There are few spaces there now that are conducive for tossing a Frisbee, throwing a football or just sitting in the sun.
If this solution is too costly, then building parking decks elsewhere should be considered. There are ample empty lots on nearby West Grace Street. There is a large open space behind Grace and Holy Trinity Church. Other downtown Richmond churches have financed and built parking decks Second Presbyterian on Fifth and St. Paul's Episcopal on Eighth. These are available weekdays for commercial use. Perhaps Grace and Holy Trinity and the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart could collaborate on such a project. Such a partnership seems to be working between Beth Ahabah and St. James's Episcopal on West Franklin Street where the two congregations built an architecturally sensitive parking deck at the corner of Franklin and Ryland.
Of course, the obvious alternative is for more patrons of the Landmark or attendees at the Monroe Park-area churches to walk or take a GRTC bus. At least seven bus lines pass within two blocks of these places.
Monroe Park is a treasure. Its history includes serving as a Confederate recruiting spot, a military hospital, a fairground, a stylish suburban park, a campus center and the scene of rock concerts. It has been a place for political discourse (Gloria Steinem, Maureen Reagan and other firebrands have spoken here), a college campus and a center for providing meals to the homeless.
But now the time has come to reclaim this space for the enjoyment of the immediate and broader community. In New York City, Bryant Park and the esplanade at Battery Park City are proving that new urban public parks, when thoughtfully designed and carefully programmed and maintained, can attract broad audiences for a variety of round-the-clock activities.
Why are we allowing our premiere, city-owned, urban park to be periodically trashed with parking? There are certain disintegrating places locally where there is no apparent constituency to oversee the improvements. This, however, isn't the case at Monroe Park. The park is bordered by the glorious Landmark Theater, a huge university, the Catholic Diocese and two thriving congregations. What is missing is a vision, a plan and a will.
But for now, let's keep the vehicles out and allow the decrepit urban park some dignity as it awaits a rescue. S