Throughout the day, as I moved about the city and chatted with people, the reaction wasn’t so much disbelief — it’s an unfortunate fact of life here that residents have become immune to ill-conceived urban design and architectural ideas. Folks now go straight to anger in their responses: It is the look in their eyes, the tone of their voices and the words they choose. “They don’t understand that economic development is already under way in that area,” a minister said. A librarian brought up the subject: “Shockoe Bottom is such a fragile, historic part of the city, a ballpark could destroy it.”
Apparently we have short memories. My first thought upon hearing of the proposal was to flash back to the mid-1970s. Back then, the Chamber of Commerce floated a plan to replace Parker Field on the Boulevard with a stadium on the site of the Farmer’s Market. I saw the plans. But when a newspaper leaked the proposal, the public outrage was so intense that the chamber denied any such thing was being considered.
Flash to 2003. Why do city leaders think a hulking downtown stadium, sitting idle most of the year, would do anything to spark downtown revival? And why would they propose such an intrusion for historical Shockoe Bottom with its precious vestiges of 18th- and 19th-century architecture? And in the name of economic revitalization? Ironically, Loving’s Produce Co. and Weiman’s Bakery, two of the Bottom’s iconic businesses, would be demolished for bleachers, locker rooms and Cracker Jack stands.
Apartment by apartment, shop by shop, the gritty Bottom has made a slow, but spectacular, recovery. And the coming reopening of Main Street Station will link the area with more svelte Shockoe Slip.
A stadium here would be architecturally and environmentally intrusive. Consider: In the late 1960s the Richmond Coliseum was built in Jackson Ward, destroying much of a historic neighborhood and doing nothing to spur adjacent development. And it’s an all-weather, year-round facility!
Already, Shockoe Bottom often is a traffic bottleneck with major state office buildings and the Virginia Commonwealth University medical campus pouring traffic down Shockoe Hill along Broad and 14th streets. Entrances and exits to I-95 create regular backups.
This is all the more relevant because Richmond’s baseball fans don’t ride public transit. So forget comparisons to such landlocked ballparks as Boston’s Fenway Park, which is near subway lines, or the Bronx’s Yankee Stadium, which has an elevated train rattling by.
The Diamond is a good facility in a terrific location with easy access to I-95 and I-64. It is intimate and part of a sports complex that has evolved alongside the Arthur Ashe Center, softball fields and Sports Backers Stadium. Richmond, along with Chesterfield and Henrico counties, has committed to spend $18.5 million on its renovation. The relandscaped Boulevard will only enhance the Diamond as a pearl in the necklace of cultural and recreational venues that stretches from the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens in Lakeside to Maymont near Byrd Park.
“But have you been to Camden Yards?” people are always asking. Yes, but has anybody asked if downtown stadiums were the big thing 10 years ago? Maybe something else has become a better paradigm for downtown development. In Richmond, that would be continued historic preservation, adaptive reuse and sensitive architectural in fill.
This is exactly what is happening in the Bottom. The Farmer’s Market is being thoughtfully and carefully programmed with special retail emphasis on different days of the week and cultural events that are seasonal and reflect the region’s diversity. There are intriguing, intimate and handsome new shops and eateries in the market including 17.5 Café, the Kitchen Table and a soon-to-open Guttenburg’s, a bookstore-wine-coffee bar. There are market-rate apartments above the stores and professional offices.
The success of Shockoe Bottom can be attributed to the lack of any massive, intrusive redevelopment schemes. Conversely, the city of Richmond has systematically destroyed such areas as the downtown retail core and blocks surrounding the Coliseum by making it impossible for entrepreneurs to venture into those areas.
The last thing Shockoe Bottom can or should endure architecturally is a looming baseball stadium. And as for economic development, if our leaders are so brilliant and au courant, why was Stony Point Fashion Park built on a rare, pristine natural site in the city while the downtown retail district, with its inventory of spectacular and mostly empty buildings, lies rotting? Norfolk recently built a mall downtown. It isn’t perfect, but why couldn’t Richmond have tweaked that concept?
Instead, behind closed doors, our city mothers and fathers are considering hairbrained, sledgehammer plans for one of our most fragile districts.
Maybe that “Shockoe Bottom baseball venue” was just a bad dream. No such luck. The next morning’s Times-Dispatch headline read “City’s ‘up at bat’ on stadium.”
Will somebody cry “Out!”? S
Edwin Slipek Jr. is Style Weekly’s architecture critic.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.