Rendering of new stadium and apartment buildings in Shockoe Bottom. Image credit: City of Richmond
Rendering of new stadium and apartment buildings in Shockoe Bottom. Image credit: City of Richmond

by James A. Bacon

Mayor Dwight C. Jones unveiled this morning a $200 million public-private project to build a new baseball stadium and spark revitalization of a neglected corner of Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom district. The project includes 750 apartments, a Kroger grocery store, a 200-room Hyatt Hotel, a parking deck and a slavery memorial. The project will be cash-flow positive for the city, according to numbers released by City Hall and reported by the Times-Dispatch.

City officials say the resulting economic activity would generate “up to” $187 million in property and sales tax revenue over 20 years while the public cost of building a stadium for the Flying Squirrels AA baseball team and making other public improvements would amount to $80 million. Assuming those numbers are accurate, back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that average tax revenues would exceed financing costs (principle and interest on bonds) by $2.5 million to $3 million yearly.

The proposal is sure to be controversial because the redevelopment project will overlay the site of the infamous Lumpkin Jail, which stood at the center of ante-bellum Richmond’s slave-trading complex. Jones’ plan would address historical-preservation concerns by erecting an interactive slavery memorial that incorporates the old African burial ground. While some local activists have opposed developing the site, a hallowed link to the history of Richmond blacks, no one has proffered a credible proposal for doing anything with the property. Under Jones’ plan, Capital One executive Steve Gannon would lead an effort to raise $30 million to create the slavery heritage memorial.

In the past, such a project might well have ignited a racial controversy. But a new generation of pragmatic African-American leadership has risen to power in Richmond that seems more interested in governing than cultivating grievances. No one can question Jones’ bona fides as a champion of the city’s poor. Earlier this year the mayor rolled out an ambitious plan to de-concentrating poverty in the poverty-ridden East End by redeveloping a major commercial corridor as mixed-use and mixed-income development.

Jones also understands that fighting poverty must be balanced by efforts to grow the city’s tax base. As the city’s press release makes plain, “all decisions are being made through the lens of economic development, creating jobs and expanding the city’s tax base. ” The project would create 1,000 construction jobs and 400 permanent jobs.

Presumably, many of the permanent, stadium-related jobs would be filled by residents of nearby poor neighborhoods. The stadium scheme will accomplish several other goals: (1) solve the perennial problem of where to create a long-term home for the Flying Squirrels, (2) accelerate re-development of Shockoe Bottom and (3) free the current Richmond Diamond site on the Boulevard for re-development. Moreover, 750 apartments – presumably serving the middle- and professional-class demographic — will bring back into the city more tax-paying citizens who demand relatively little in the way of city services.

From a high-altitude perspective, the proposal seems to make a lot of sense. But it must withstand close public scrutiny. City Hall needs to answer some important questions before the project can move forward:

  • Do the revenue numbers stand up? Are they based on speculative assumptions that, for instance, baseball fans will dine or shop in Shockoe Bottom before going to the games? What are the risks that the hoped-for private-sector development and attendant tax revenues will not materialize or be slower than expected to materialize?
  • What impact will incurring debt have on the city’s AA bond rating? To what extent will borrowing $80 million crowd out other capital improvements? Could the city invest its borrowing capacity more cost-effectively elsewhere?
  • How will the stadium impact Shockoe Bottom parking? Will the stadium compete with existing uses (daytime commercial, evening entertainment and residential) and create shortages, or will it complement existing uses by scheduling games during off-peak periods?
  • Can the existing Interstate 95 on- and off-ramps accommodate the surge of automobiles during events? How severe will the congestion be, how far will it spread and how long will it last?
  • Will the design of the stadium apartments and grocery store adhere to the principles of walkable urbanism or will it conflict? One specific question: Will the grocery store be surrounded by a large parking lot, or will it be integrated into the urban fabric?

In theory, the project should be highly positive for Richmond. Aside from building a new baseball stadium (a benefit to which I am entirely indifferent) it will bring the first large grocery store downtown, a critical amenity for supporting continued re-population of the city core. As a bonus, the presence of a Kroger store would roll back the “food desert” in which poor inner-city residents lack access to reasonably priced fresh fruits and vegetables. If the design is done properly, the project will upgrade streetscapes and improve walkability for a big chunk of the Shockoe Bottom district. Finally, the stadium project opens up land currently dedicated to the Diamond stadium near the Boulevard and Interstate 95 for re-development. The nearby industrial zone of Scott’s Addition is already hopping with residential and commercial projects. The Diamond tract would lend itself wonderfully to mixed-use development.

The devil, of course, is in the details. But there should be enough economic value added in the stadium project to create a win-win for everyone, and Jones has shown himself to be the kind of leader to make make sure there’s something in it for everyone.

Update: “Breckinridge” raises a good point in the comments: How much of the land will have to be acquired through eminent domain? He says the Havana ’59 restaurant (a fun, fun restaurant) would get wiped out by the plan. I have strong reservations about eminent domain being used for “economic development” purposes. Indeed, doesn’t the amended state constitution ban such a use?

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14 responses to “An Electrifying Plan for Shockoe Bottom”

  1. Breckinridge Avatar

    I just happened to speak with a current Squirrel’s season ticket holder this morning who was adamant he’d drop the tickets if the stadium is downtown. There’s one vote.

    You missed a bullet point — can they get the land together without use of eminent domain? Not all the Bottom businesses are eager to sell, and I’ve never felt that neglected eating at Havana ’59 (which gets wiped out by this plan.) I’m skeptical that this can work without creating a traffic nightmare, skeptical of the rosy scenario economic analysis, skeptical that a “remember slavery” theme will be a tourist draw or satisfy those who consider that haloed ground. Something just as economically exciting could have been built right where the Diamond is now on largely vacant land with a far better traffic situation.

    So call me skeptical.

    1. For what it’s worth, Havana 59 is specific labelled on this conceptual drawing of the proposed 17th Street Promenad, so it seems that it is NOT getting “wiped out” as you say:

    2. I’m calling your comment skeptical overall. The proposal clearly shows Havana 59 in tact, as Bryce points out. Also, eminent domain in Virginia CANNOT be used for: “private enterprise, job creation, tax revenue generation or economic development”.

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    How did the Redskins summer camp turn out? Did it meet the economic expectations?

    1. Very good question. I don’t recall seeing anyone follow up on the question.

  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka


    Didn’t look too far did you?

    I am puzzled by the need for a ball park in this neighborhood. Richmond went down this road a few years ago. I don’t see how parking will work nor do I see how the Slave Trail aspects would be protected, exactly. We’re told there will be some kind of “museum.”

    The current location at Boulevard and the Interstates is perfect for regional ballfans. The Diamond is an atrocity. There’s also a lot of new development in Scott’s Addition and the Boulevard area.

    1. I don’t understand the reasoning behind this plan either. The location has worked for many years, but the ballpark is outdated and in need of upgrades. Rather than pull the plug on the location why not renovate or build a new park at the site?

      I agree that there is a good amount of redevelopment in the area around the park. Scott’s Addition and the Boulevard are improving (the Interbake site looks promising), plus the Redskins training facility is right around the corner.

  4. add me to the skeptics.

    I keep getting confused to how the unfettered free market should work (in theory) and what govt’s role is in things beyond essential core services (in theory).

    We have two similar issues down (up??) our way. One is to entice the Hagerstown Suns to move to Fredericksburg – ironically on the same footprint of the failed slavery museum that Doug Wilder championed.

    The other is a plan for the Old Dominion Raceway to move from uber residential Prince William to the metropolis of Thornburg, Va.

    The former required “incentives” from the city and a kerfuffle arose over the traffic that would impact I-95 land.

    The latter involved the use of a diamond interchange on I-95 to handle
    raceday spectator traffic… that likely will overwhelm the ramps.

    In both cases – the perceived availability of auto access infrastructure is at issue and in each case – it appears that “someone” is going to have to come up with the bucks to upgrade the transportation infrastructure and in both cases – the “private” – “free market” businesses are suggesting that taxpayers should pick up these costs so they can be a successful business.

    I’m getting to be as bad a cynic as TMT is on this stuff.

    In both cases, there is discussion of how much economic activity will arise from these ventures and in both cases – the assertion is made that – if they succeed – they will pay for themselves and more….

    I’m not in opposition. I’m generally in favor primarily because I’ve seen so many residential-only proposals that are dual dead-weight losses on tax dollars or infrastructure capacity or both and any kind of true economic development in an exurban community is better than more commuter residential.

    but in downtown Richmond – I would think – and this is just me – that you’d have to have the strong support of the business community in that area – from concept to implementation and talk of eminent domain is not a good start.

    1. Damn, Larry, I’m proud of you. Development ought to pay for itself. Impact fees, proffers, special taxes and increased real estate taxes.

      1. geeze TMT! this is a role for govt on development … but where is that line?

        Fredericksburg wanted a Wegmans. Wegmans said it was a gamble and were not sure we had strong enough demographics.

        Fredericksburg wrote a TIF – that basically cut a tax break to a minimum threshold, then if sales increased beyond the threshold, the tax cut gradually went away.

        Wegmans is now one of the busiest groceries in the area and actually competes head-to-head with a WalMart 1/2 mile away. Wegmans undersells WalMart on thing like wine… etc.. but also carries higher end products WalMart does not carry.

        You never know but Wegmans may not have moved here without a deal.

  5. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    It is hard for me to assess this. Sport Stadiums are often hard to gauge as redevelopment tools.

  6. Les Schreiber Avatar
    Les Schreiber

    There is a good amount of academic research on this type of thing and the results are that sports venues are not often a good use of economic development funds.The area around the current ball park has seen good restaurants open,a movie complex and is near the Sports Backers Stadium.There is ample parking and access to the interstate highway system. If Richmond needs AA baseball, the current sight is the best place . I do not believe that cost benefit analysis will support the plan. Who is really behind this is the question I would like answered.A better place to zero in on would be the former bus depot on Cary Street east of the Boulevard.

  7. yes.. that’s the thing. If Richmond had no stadium.. then perhaps but they’re basically abandoning an existing venue and the business there that benefit from it.

    bad idea.

  8. On this issue, I completely agree with you – this has the potential to be the best thing to happen to Richmond in decades. The Bottom needs something to tie it together in the middle – bringing together the significant residential redevelopment to the east, the entertainment and dining business in the center and the business district to the west, and this is it.

    The site is a wasteland right now. I drive by there twice a day, and it’s a huge eyesore. Cleaning it up with a first-class stadium, residential units and retail space will do wonders. Locating the stadium next to the train station and in the shadows of downtown buildings will create awesome views of the city and a great chance to showcase what Richmond has to offer. Locating it in a pedestrian-friendly area – near thousands of residents – will limit the traffic implications and crate a more walkable/bikeable Richmond. The tie-in with the train station, where a big bus hub is going to be located, helps too.

    The 17th Street promenade idea is genius, as much as I like the farmers’ market. That will create an inviting few blocks for pedestrians to amble, gather, eat at ourdoor patios and enjoy being downtown. Whoever said Havana 59 will be forced out is dead wrong – the whole idea of the promenade is to encourage restaurants and shops along that stretch, not force them to leave.

    This will turn into a huge selling point for our city and region, as it will be visible to the hundreds of thousands who travel I-95 every day. We often complain about how that corridor does little to showcase the city in a positive light – well, no need to worry about that once this project goes in. People will view Richmond as progressive yet classic – putting a new spin on an old story.

    It will increase community pride, if this whole project comes together the way it is being presented. There will be plenty of parking options – far more than exist at the Diamond right now. Most games will take place at 7 p.m., after rush hour has ended, or on weekend afternoons, when there isn’t a rush hour. Even if all 7,200 people drove to the game at the same time, that would still be less traffic than the Bottom deals with any morning or evening of the work week. The farmer’s market crammed 15,000 people into a Bacon Festival this year, and I didn’t hear anyone complaining about traffic.

    Leaving the stadium on the Boulevard would be a colossal failure. There is nothing to do there. Virtually no one could or would walk or bike to games there. There are virtually no dining options nearby. The industrial makeup of the area there is not appealing or inviting. It doesn’t show off the best of the city. I applaud the attempts at redevelopment there, but they are decades away from reaching the point that the Bottom already has reached in its efforts. A stadium in the heart of the city will wrap a bow around that redevelopment, rid the Bottom of its last major remaining area of blight and give us all something to be proud of.

    And to those people who claim they’ll never come to a game in the Bottom, because of traffic, because of parking, because they think they’re going to get shot, mugged or raped (while in a crowd of thousands of people at 8 pm, I might add): Good riddance. You probably never went to the Diamond, anyway. I’m sure we can find 7,200 other people a night who would love to visit a shiny new stadium. Plenty of people visit the Bottom already, and this will only enhance the entire area and experience for visitors.

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