The race to build a new ballpark on North Boulevard is on. Thanks to the Richmond Flying Squirrels’ recent threat to move if the city didn’t build it, plans are under way to replace the aging Diamond.
It didn’t have to take so long. There’s already a blueprint. Despite Mayor Dwight Jones’ insistence that the economy is at fault for the delay, during the height of the recession in 2008 City Hall received several proposals to redevelop the Boulevard — both with and without a ballpark.
The Diamond anchors a prominent, 60-acre patch bounded by Hermitage Road and the Boulevard, with easy access to interstates 64 and 95. The hefty parcel includes the Arthur Ashe Center, the Metropolitan Richmond Sports Backers complex and a city public works facility. It’s widely considered one of the most valuable — yet underdeveloped — pieces of real estate left in the city.
“The Boulevard has always been earmarked as the new entryway to the city,” says Larry Agnew, vice president of Divaris Real Estate and a longtime retail broker. “There’s a lot of potential for revitalization at that site.”
The area’s potential largely has been overlooked. In 2008 former Mayor L. Douglas Wilder announced that the city was working with North Carolina-based Highwood Properties to develop both the Boulevard site and the area around Main Street Station in Shockoe Bottom. But most of the attention went to Highwoods’ plans for the Bottom — a $363 million development project that included a new stadium — which Jones nixed in 2009.
Why? Retailing in the Bottom is risky business, and likely wouldn’t generate enough taxes to help fund a new ballpark without the city’s financial help. It’s called tax-increment financing, which diverts taxes within a designated district to pay for public infrastructure such as roads or, in this case, a ballpark.
North Boulevard? Maybe not so much. With easy interstate access and a location central to North Side, the Fan and Virginia Commonwealth University, the Boulevard likely would attract interest from major retailers. It did three years ago. One group bidding to become the city’s development partner, led by former City Manager Bob Bobb, informed the city that it had secured a preliminary letter of interest from a major retailer looking to build a 200,000-square-foot store on the site. That was February 2008.
Highwoods so liked the area that it determined keeping the ballpark on North Boulevard would hurt the city financially. The land simply was too valuable for a ballpark, Highwoods said.
But the agreements for both the Bottom and Boulevard lapsed, and the city rescinded the contract offer. Highwoods Vice President Paul Kreckman says that the company is no longer actively pursuing the project. “We haven’t seen any plans from the city,” he says. “We’re just going to have to wait and see.”
Tammy Hawley, a spokeswoman for Mayor Dwight Jones, says the preliminary steps toward redevelopment of the Boulevard have begun. The city is working with the state’s Department Environmental Quality to finalize a necessary environmental remediation plan. “Once we receive DEQ approval,” Hawley says, “we can begin demolition of the site to further prepare that location.”