Martin Luther King Jr. UNITY Park Project
MLK UNITY Park – Purpose and Goals
The purpose of the Martin Luther King Jr. UNITY Park Project is to strengthen the social fabric of the Richmond regional community, and the Commonwealth of Virginia with a memorial park created to commemorate the life and celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebrating the power of UNITY and representing a collaborative effort involving citizens of Richmond, the City of Richmond and the Commonwealth of Virginia, the MLK UNITY Park will forge many positive community connections as Richmonders band together to create a shared resource to support and inspire our community for generations to come.
An over-arching goal of the MLK UNITY Park is to offer Richmonders, Virginians and visitors a multi-dimensional means of channeling the powerful words, actions and legacy of Dr. King – through the creative arts, historic interpretation, physical activity and sustainable actions. The Park will be imagined, designed and constructed by Richmonders of all ages and backgrounds, enhancing individual and community pride along the way. Ultimately the Park intends to become a playground and experiential haven for folks living across the RVA and especially in Richmond’s East End.
MLK UNITY Park – Physical Components and Programming Subsets
The primary physical component of the MLK UNITY Park is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Bridge > including its travel surface on top as well as its pillars, physical supports and the land underneath. The portion of the park below the bridge, including O Street that connects 18th Street to the MLK School Campus, intersects with the other main physical component of the park > the fields and athletic facilities behind the MLK Pre-School and Middle School. It is also proposed that the Park include the unused portion of the MLK School campus at the corner of Mosby and Littlepage Streets.
The official entrance to the MLK UNITY Park will be at North 18th Street at what we hope will be changed to UNITY Street – see picture below.
Currently there are a variety of components and programming subsets being considered for implementation in the MLK UNITY Park:
- MLK Murals, Banners and Memorabilia – Creating an art gallery on top of the MLK Memorial Bridge, complementing and supplementing the 1st MLK mural dedicated in 2018 on the eastern side of the bridge
- MLK Mural and Sculpture Garden – Transforming the space underneath the bridge, along O Street to 18th Street, into an artistic sanctuary and event space
- MLK Urban Agriculture Center – Creating a working farm in the fields behind the schools, beyond the softball outfields to the back fenceline of the property
- MLK UNITY Park Athletic Facilities – Taking maximum advantage of the athletic facilities > 2 softball fields, track, football/soccer/lacrosse field, mountain bike trail, basketball courts
- Richmond History as seen from the MLK Bridge – Turning the top of the MLK Memorial Bridge into an outdoor museum offering historical interpretation of the views of Shockoe Valley from both sides of the bridge
Background on the MLK Jr. Memorial Bridge
The 2,100-foot, six-lane bridge (currently 4 auto lanes + 2 bike lanes) that connects Leigh Street on the west side of Shockoe Valley with O and Mosby Streets on the east side of the valley is formally named the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Bridge. Also referred to as the Leigh Street Viaduct, the bridge opened in 1976 amid a flurry of urban planning projects and was funded with a combination of local, state and federal dollars. The MLK Memorial Bridge replaced the Marshall Street Viaduct, a four-lane structure of some legend in Richmond. Both structures were built for the same purpose—to connect Church Hill and the East End to the city center and alleviate congestion on Broad Street.
Then State Senator and Church Hill resident L. Douglas Wilder lobbied hard for a new bridge. With the opening of the Manchester Bridge in 1972, the construction of the new Richmond Coliseum and City Hall, the recent merging of Virginia Commonwealth University and the Medical College of Virginia, and the looming Downtown Expressway, he saw no reason why the East End should be left out. Opponents were concerned about the bridge’s effect on the west side of the valley, where a few medical college buildings stood in the path of the proposed Leigh Street extension. For more specific information on the bridge, see the Harry Kollatz Jr. article below from 2012
MLK UNITY Park – Building on a Solid Foundation
The MLK UNITY Park concept builds on a very solid artistic, intellectual and community development foundation which is the result of a multi-year convergence of interests wrapped around the MLK Bridge and the fields behind MLK Middle and Pre-School. On the artistic side, the southeastern end of the MLK Bridge was adorned in 2018 with a 108 foot MLK mural that includes the words “I Have A Dream” > the result of collaboration between the City of Richmond’s Dept. of Parks & Recreation (Cultural Arts Program) and the UNITY Street Project – see link below for a Richmond Times Dispatch article about the mural.
Benefitting from the positive discussions and approvals related to the first mural, a second MLK mural was finished in late 2018 under the direction of UNITY Street Project on a supporting structure of the bridge, facing MLK PreSchool and Middle School – see link below for a Richmond Times Dispatch article about the dedication of this mural.
On the intellectual and community development side, the 2nd annual I Have A Dream Festival was recently held under the MLK Bridge and on the fields behind the schools to showcase the possibilities of the park concept. Many community leaders were on hand to see for themselves the many opportunities to build community on currently unused City land > Mayor Stoney, RPS Superintendent Kamras, Councilwoman Robertson, and VA Senator Dance to name a few. See link below for some nice attention from WTVR-6 to the Festival and the park concept
Together the murals and the festivals have provided the MLK UNITY Park with a solid artistic, intellectual and community development foundation and have started the process of creating continuity between the Project’s many components and programming possibilities. The murals and festivals are the result of several years of thought and action by multiple individuals and organizations, first separately and then collaboratively. With the new ideas running around in so many heads from their recent introduction to the park at the I Have A Dream Festival, the stage is set for serious movement in the development of the park.
Partnering with the Commonwealth of Virginia and the City of Richmond
The MLK Memorial Bridge is owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia and maintained by the City of Richmond, so both jurisdictions are a part of the planning for the MLK UNITY Park. Virginia’s involvement will also include the Virginia General Assembly’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission > http://mlkcommission.dls.virginia.gov/. It is hoped and expected the Commonwealth of Virginia and the City of Richmond will identify many ways to use the MLK UNITY Park to further their goals and objectives for their constituents.
Rick Tatnall, Replenish Richmond