"The Fulton Gas Works site near the Terminal Building on the river is the site [for a baseball stadium] under discussion," Wilder said in his prepared remarks for his "City of the Future" address Jan. 9. "I want to state that a marina, and harbor development and other development are being discussed in the alternative to the Braves deciding to leave Richmond."
Wilder's announcement came on the heels of a more definitive one: Plans for a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom have been nixed. After months of speculation and mixed public sentiment about the proposal, Wilder informed Richmonders that Washington, D.C.-based Global Development Partners would not be giving Shockoe Bottom a $330-million baseball-anchored residential and retail development.
Meanwhile, the mayor says the Braves' parent organization in Atlanta has informed the city it will not remain at The Diamond beyond its lease, which is up at the end of the 2006 season. The message: Build a new ballpark or no Braves. Mike Plant, vice president of business operations for the Atlanta Braves, could not be reached for comment by press time.
So now a fresh field of dreams has emerged: the city-owned property at Fulton Gas Works, located a stone's throw from Rocketts Landing and a golf cart's drive from the canal. Sources familiar with the site say the land has remained idle because nobody knows what the soil holds. It's long been believed that contaminants from decades of use as a gasworks where coal was burned to make heating gas could mean that much environmental cleanup would be required before new development could occur.
In January 2004, City Council voted to allow Brandermill, Woodlake and Cary Street developers East West Partners to purchase the land cheap, along with some adjacent properties, and build a retail and residential neighborhood there. In exchange, the city would get one-third of the eventual profits from the project. When the agreement between the city and East West Partners was announced, the parties acknowledged it would take about a year just to ascertain what was in the ground, the effort itself costing millions. But that project never materialized.
So why not a ballpark?
"It's a site that wasn't considered or just breezed by in the past," Richmond Economic Development Director William Jabjiniak told WWBT-TV 12 earlier this month about the city's dusted-off plans for Fulton Bottom. "We've been able to identify [a baseball stadium footprint] does fit in that neighborhood," he said.
But a footprint for a slavery museum didn't. In August 2001, city officials offered nearly 10 acres of the Fulton Gas Works property to then-former Gov. Wilder for his pet project to build a state-of-the-art national slavery museum. Wilder rejected the site as being too small for such a museum. In early October of that year, the city offered additional land totaling 22 acres for the project estimated to cost Richmond at least $5 million. Days later, Wilder and the museum's board opted for a 22-acre location on the Rappahannock in Fredericksburg.
City spokesman Linwood Norman says the city has nothing further to discuss about the Fulton Gas Works project. "No definite time lines have been reached, nor in regard to financing," he says.
According to an agreement reached in late October between the city and developers of the nearby Village of Rocketts Landing, WVS Companies of Occoquan, the developers are creating a master plan for the riverside tract including Fulton Gas Works from Tobacco Row east to Henrico County.
William H. "Bill" Abeloff, a visionary of the Rocketts Landing development and consultant with WVS, confirms that "Rocketts Landing is working with the city on a master plan" to address the development at Fulton. Abeloff says his group is working on the Fulton site but declines to describe the nature of the work. The master plan should be completed soon, he says, and details along with "illustrative" renderings should be presented in the next few weeks. "If there's a baseball park" included, he says, "that's city business."
Because Rocketts Landing developers have a stake in the area regarding property they own and want to own, Abeloff says, they were in position to do work on the Fulton site as well. However, the agreement between the city and the developers is nonbinding, Abeloff says. Most recently, 32 acres in Henrico County have been rezoned for mixed-use development in the Rocketts Landing project, four blocks of which are under construction.
But amid the progress of multiple projects in the area, it's unclear how some might be affected by a ballpark. How, for instance, would a 50-mile bike and pedestrian trail fare with a ballpark in its path? Already the state has invested more than $10 million to link Jamestown to Richmond with its long-awaited Virginia Capital Trail. Harold Dyson, project manager for the project, says he hasn't heard a word about a baseball stadium and whether its location in the eastern part of the city would affect the Richmond portion of the trail. Likewise, how would owners of high-end condos like a baseball stadium in their back yards?
Still, with new land-use projects also come obstacles. According to one city official who asked to remain anonymous, a ballpark of similar design to the one proposed for Shockoe Bottom simply isn't feasible for the Fulton Gas Works site because of physical constraints. Gillie Creek, existing roadways such as state Route 5, train tracks and the city's combined sewer-overflow project would have to move, for instance.
But if the city had planned nearly five years ago to make accommodations, such as moving Main Street to the north to reduce chances of flooding and relocating utilities to suit a slavery museum, does it follow that it could do at least this today?
Lee Buffinton, co-founder of the Citizens Organized for Responsible Development and a resident of Church Hill, says it shouldn't. A vocal critic of plans to put a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom, just north of the 17th Street Farmers' Market, Buffinton says the same objections that emerged with that proposal exist in Fulton Bottom, too.
"There are obvious concerns right off," Buffinton says, including access, traffic, parking and potential flooding. What's more, she predicts a groundswell of protest should area residents be asked to subsidize any costs. "There will be a tax revolt in the city," she says. Shy of this, Buffinton proffers a silver lining: "It's better than Shockoe, but still not an improvement over The Diamond." S
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