The City Council’s decision to relocate a controversial “comfort women” memorial to Blackburn Park is being made without public input, despite it not being part of a parks master plan approved last year.
City officials say the parks master plan, that included months of public meetings with consultant GreenbergFarrow before it was approved by the council in February 2016, is a “guiding document” and the city can add features later.
“The master plans are a guiding document; however, the city has an obligation to remain flexible and add amenities as warranted,” Burke Brennan, city spokesperson, said. “Furthermore, the placement of the statue should not interfere with any future long-term park plans.”
The city announced July 5 it was relocating the “comfort women” memorial from the 3-acre Blackburn Park II on Blair Circle to the 45-acre Blackburn Park on Ashford-Dunwoody Road, just days after the statue’s June 30 unveiling. Hundreds of cheering people and national and international media attended the unveiling.
The statue, depicting a girl seated next to an empty chair, is intended to honor the so-called comfort women who were sexually trafficked by the Japanese military during World War II. It is identical to several similar statues installed around the world as part of a cultural and political dispute between South Korea and Japan over “comfort women” history and responsibility.
The city has not stated when the memorial will be moved other than “within the next few weeks,” according to the release.
Brian Borden, director of Parks and Recreation, included three photographs in a July 5 email to City Manager Christian Sigman, obtained through an open records request, of sites he is recommending in Blackburn Park for the statue. Borden stated the best choice to him is a site between Ashford-Dunwoody Road and the ballfields, near the playground, where there is shade and access to parking.
The council voted May 23 to accept the memorial from the Atlanta Comfort Women Memorial Task Force and Sigman said at the meeting that a site for the statue had not been chosen then.
But emails between city officials also show the Blackburn Park II site was selected as far back as April when council members were meeting with members of the task force, which commissioned the statue.
“There were several discussions prior to the acceptance of the memorial, but nothing was finalized prior to the City Council vote,” Brennan said when asked about the apparent discrepancy.
When some residents living near Blackburn Park II learned in May that the statue would be installed in the park they paid to maintain, they threatened to sue the city. The residents, members of The Reserve at Brookleigh Community Association, had been paying about $20,000 a year for the park’s maintenance for the past several years, something city officials did not realize. The city is taking over maintenance of the park, Brennan said.
City officials already had decided to move the memorial before its June 30 unveiling. A June 27 email from Mayor John Ernst to Brad Sapir, board member for The Reserve at Brookleigh association, which represents 95 homeowners along Blair Circle, said the announcement would be made after the Fourth of July holiday and asked Sapir to keep the information private.
“If the relocation is announced prior to the unveiling it will mute the impact of the city’s message that human and sex trafficking is a serious issue. It will also embolden the detractors at the international level to eliminate the statute entirely,” Ernst said.
The city paid for the cement base the statue sits on in Blackburn Park II and estimates it will cost less than $2,000 to relocate the statue, including $1,100 for the cement base, Brennan said. The task force will cover costs associated with landscaping around the memorial, he said.
While there appears to be no specific policy in place for accepting public art, Brennan said the city charter outlines how the city is to conduct business.
“A resolution was placed on a public agenda in advance, and voted on in an advertised public meeting. Public comment on the topic preceded the council vote, which was covered extensively by the news media, and the Reporter Newspapers was first to report,” Brennan said.
The agenda item did not, however, specify the kind of public art that was being accepted and from whom. Most of those who spoke during public comment were members of the memorial’s task force.
An Atlanta version of the memorial began in controversy earlier this year, when the National Center for Civil and Human Rights backed out of a previous acceptance of the statue, which was to be placed on its grounds near Centennial Olympic Park.
Brookhaven then agreed to take the statue, citing its relationship to the city’s battle against contemporary sex trafficking. The city also has a significant Korean American population and City Councilmember John Park, an advocate of the memorial, was born in South Korea.