The Richmond Planning Commission on Monday unanimously approved the design of a memorial plaza that will honor pioneering black banker, teacher and civil rights advocate Maggie L. Walker, though critics and even a supporter of what has become a nearly $1 million project have questioned the process and price tag.
The roughly 6,500-square-foot plaza will feature a 10-foot bronze statue of Walker on a 40-inch pedestal and involves closing a small portion of Brook Road where it meets West Broad and North Adams streets. The plaza will be finished by the end of the year, and the statue will be done by March, said sculptor Toby Mendez, who was awarded the contract for the statue.
“The city of Richmond is making a historic decision. ... This black woman deserves her place in the city,” said J. Maurice Hopkins, who was born and raised in Jackson Ward and graduated from Maggie Walker High in 1965. Hopkins is among a group of people who have long pushed for a statue honoring Walker and obliquely referenced recent national racial tension in his remarks to the commission. “We need this. ... This is a unification project.”
There was a sharp divide, however, over the process, cost and necessity of the plaza.
“Your vote today is about a process that’s gotten out of control,” said Jennie Dotts of Church Hill. The statue is expected to cost about $300,000, and the total cost is $900,000 for both plaza and statue. Dotts said the city is reneging on a 2010 City Council measure that called for private funding of the project. “Now, the taxpayers are on the hook,” she said.
In a statement, Mayor Dwight C. Jones also referenced the 2010 council vote, though not the source of funding.
“Seeing this effort cross this hurdle is very gratifying,” Jones said. “The vision for the Maggie L. Walker statue and this project has been under discussion for quite some time. I am pleased to have had a hand in making sure this happens. This is right for our city, our state and our country.”
The city’s Public Art Commission and Planning Commission approved the conceptual design for the memorial and public art components in April. The plaza design was approved by the Public Art Commission last week.
Tammy D. Hawley, the mayor’s press secretary, said Monday’s vote “completes the approval process for the plaza” and that the design will not go before the City Council.
On Monday, the Planning Commission approved modifications to the design recommended by the city’s Urban Design Committee that include tweaks to trash can placement, tree and vegetation type, bench materials, paving materials, and the addition of crosswalks and disabled-accessible curb ramps, among others.
“This is a long-overdue recognition,” Jones said. “This new public space in our downtown presenting this august leader to our residents and visitors will further Richmond’s reputation in the public art realm and with respect to our recognition of African-American history.”
The Public Art Commission will pay for about $275,000 in construction costs and Mendez’s $300,000 commission. The city’s Department of Public Works and Department of Public Utilities will pay the rest.
Sarah Driggs, a member of the art commission, though speaking in favor of the plaza Monday, expressed dismay that the city administration “ignored and manipulated our process.”
“We hope that we will all learn from this,” she said.
Other art commission members have said the project was fast-tracked to try to finish it before Jones leaves office and could compromise other public art projects.
The statue will receive final Public Art Commission and Planning Commission approval in August.