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Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Case For Baseball Downtown

I wrote this in March 2005 in response to a guest editorial in the RTD. Almost nothing has heppened in the intervening 3 years, except the Braves got tired of waiting and are leaving town.


There's nothing like negative thinking to limit acomplishment. If your convinced something is going to fail before even attempting it, chances are you will. There seems to be a grassroots campaign to kill a major investment project in downtown Richmond. I have to wonder at the motives of this hostile choir. If this were just another proposed development for downtown Richmond, would the same negative energy be mobilized against it? If so, why not pull the ballpark out of the mix? Well, here's why not.

We have an unremarkable ballpark in an uninteresting part of town. It's biggest recomendation seems to be easy freeway access and parking. People who go to the games now zoom in from wherever, catch a game in a rather dismal setting surrounded by old warehouses and a rough, tough industrial park. When it's over, the fans scoot back to their homes as fast as possible. There precious little synergy between the ballpark and the rest of the city.

We are now at a crossroads. The stadium needs renovating, but the same jurisdictions that will poor good money after bad are unwilling to invest with an exciting vision of the future. Baseball and downtowns go together like hotdogs and apple pie. I've lived in cities where stadiums were downtown and part of the fabric of life and cities where they were surround by acres of asphalt next to a freeway interchange and there is no comparison. Stadiums and baseball teams provide a focus for cities, a common ground where suburbunites and city dwellers can come together. We have a historic opportunity to change the face of the city. A downtown stadium is one of the great missing pieces that can renergize and revitalize this city. A city, a downtown, needs people, not just during the business day and not just in special events. It needs regular traffic by ordinary people who come to the city to participate in the rythm of life. Baseball, more than almost anything else provides that rhythm. It is a serene sport. You must slow down to appreciate it. It provides a living, breathing event for the entire summer.

Here are some of the objections.

  • Parking Spaces. Well, there are plenty of parking once the workforce evacuates around 5:00 each day.
  • Distance to Parking: People may be slightly inconvenience by having to walk a few blocks. This could also be alleviated by running a few buses on a circular route between the ballpark and the parking garages.
  • Daygame parking: Well that's going to be tougher, but somehow we will manage. Let's remember we are talking about crowds between 2,000 and 4,000 people, sometime less. Sell outs are not that common. It will take a little creativity, but somehow we will manage.
  • Access: The site lies within eyesight of I95 and within blocks of I64 and the Downtown Expressway. Don't tell me traffic is going to be worse here than out by our own little mixing bowl just past the Diamond. THAT is the area I avoid, especially between 5:00 and 7:00 PM, just before game time. Downtown has relatively little traffic once the office workers vanish.
  • Safety: This is an ongoing challenge, but not an insurmountable one. For the most part, the area is safe. There is more an image of crime and an actuality of crime. The reality is that crime does occur in the wee hours of the morning long after baseball fans have long gone. This would only improve with better lighting, more traffic and better security. Safety is a concern, but it can be addressed.
  • Family friendly? The Shockoe Bottom area has a reputation as a party and nightclub scene. This is also a misperception. Yes there are nightclubs and bars, but there are also upscale restaurants, bookstores, shopping and coffeehouses. There is also the Poe Museum, the Canal Walk, the nearby Manchester Arts district, the soon to be reopened Bottoms Up Pizza and the Farmer's Market. To those of us who know, there are plenty of things for families to do in the Shockoe Bottom area. Just a short distance away is the Church Hill neighborhood. Brown's Island and Belle Island are a short walk or a drive. The reality is the recreation opportunities around downtown are just too numerous to mention.
  • Flooding problems. Well, we wouldn't be having this discussion without Gaston. Flooding is an issue, but I don't know that you can make good decisions based on singular events like Gaston, which has been described perhaps a 500 year flood. The area is flood prone though and drainage must be overhauled. What a better time and way to do it than in conjuction with a major redevelopment project. The Bottom was devasted by Gaston. The stadium proposal will do more than anything else to renovate and restore the area. Grant money can be combined with local tax dollars and private investment to fix this problem.
  • Financing: I am not a money man either, but if we are (were) going to spend money of a stadium anyway, why not put our money somewhere it will do the most benefit. This stadium will be a magnet for downtown and provide an energy and excitement that will only enhance the many great attributes of Richmond. There is an energy building. It's everywhere you look downtown. Two major projects along Belvidere, one at Grace and the other at Frankin. Almost two full blocks of historic storefronts are being renovated along Broad Street. There's dozens of others, big and small as noted in the referenced article. This city is reaching critical mass. Pretty soon it will be obvious to all. Downtown will no longer be a place you have to go. An investment the size of the stadium and it's surrounding development creates a logic of it's own and it's not taking place in isolation. This isn't another 6th Street Marketplace.

Richmond is on the verge of greatness. Now is a time for big ideas. If we think small, we will get small, if we think big, we might just hit a homerun for this city.

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