Five hundred people jammed into City Council chambers last week to weigh in on the mayor's proposal to remake Shockoe Bottom around a new baseball stadium. They came with signs declaring "Carnival in a Cemetery" and "No Stadium in Shockoe Bottom" and "I Support Shockoe Ballpark." They came full of warnings and questions and condemnation and praise. So many people showed up that the fire marshal posted police officers at each door to steer residents toward an overflow viewing room.
City Council members heard more than two hours of public opinion from critics and supporters of the proposal, which calls for the Richmond Flying Squirrels' ballpark to be constructed by 2015 as part of a development that would include 700 apartments, a 100-room hotel, a grocery store and a slave heritage site.
The project also would open city-owned land on the Boulevard, the current home of The Diamond, to a mixed-use development that Mayor Dwight Jones says could bring in $200 million in new tax revenue during the next 20 years.
Activists pledged to lie down in front of bulldozers if the ballpark project goes forward. Proponents warned that the city would stagnate if City Council didn't commit to the plan — one resident threatened to move.
City Council's decision that night to move ahead with negotiations offered little resolution to the civic battle that played out in front of them. The 6-3 vote doesn't commit the city to do anything, and nearly all the council members said they still had serious reservations.
This debate likely will drag on through August, when the mayor would need to seek approval for the final permits to begin construction. So while deliberations continue, here's a snapshot of what we know, what we don't and what we're waiting to find out.
1. What happens if Richmond doesn't build the stadium in Shockoe Bottom?
No one's quite sure. David Hicks, the mayor's chief policy adviser, says the administration hasn't discussed it. But he also suggests it's unlikely that the mayor would be able to scrape together an alternative plan before his term ends in 2016 if the plan is voted down. Hicks says that's especially true given the level of resources and planning dedicated to preparing for 2015 UCI Road World Championship bike race next year.
"'We don't know' doesn't mean we're going to take the ball and go home," Hicks says. "But it really just becomes a matter of the calendar."
From the Richmond Flying Squirrels' perspective, location is less important than having a new stadium. "We're open," says Lou DiBella, the team's president and managing partner. "We didn't make the selection of the Bottom — the city did. If something changed, so long as we were adequately taken care of and the Squirrels were given a nest, so to speak, that would be OK. But I want to emphasize that the plans for development in the Bottom look exciting."
Timing is also important to the Squirrels. They'd like to have a new stadium by 2016. "If something doesn't happen then — it's been way too long and it's exceeded the length of time with respect to the promises that were made when we moved to Richmond," DiBella says. "Certainly at that point, we'd have a hard talk."
So if the city wants to keep the Squirrels, someone will have to scramble to figure out an alternative, and the mayor isn't making any promises that it'll be him.
2. If the city builds a stadium in the Bottom, how much will it cost taxpayers — and will it pay off?
The city estimates it will cost $56.3 million to build the stadium itself. Another $23.4 million will cover the cost of flood mitigation around the development and other miscellaneous expenses. That brings publicly financed construction costs to $79.7 million. Including the interest on the bonds that will be floated to pay for the development, that total rises to $167 million, paid off over 30 years, which translates to roughly $800 per resident.
But the mayor and his staff project that the ballpark development will generate enough tax revenue every year to cover the annual bond payment on the stadium itself. In that best-case scenario, taxpayers will be left to pay out of pocket only for the flood infrastructure and other improvements, which come to $45.4 million including interest. That breaks down to about $216 per resident -- paid off over 30 years, that's about $7 a year, per person.
As to whether a baseball stadium is worth it, that depends on how much you like baseball. City officials say they never considered not building a stadium, reasoning that the minor league team is a municipal amenity that's important to attracting businesses and residents.
Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist and one of the premier researchers on the impact of municipal stadiums, says that's all about right. "Most of the research would suggest that the benefit would come not in financial terms, but in the psycho-social terms — that it would be a form of cultural enrichment for the community," he says. "The extent to which that happens depends on the attitudes of the community."
Economists have tried to find ways to measure this value, Zimbalist says, but they aren't very good: "I wouldn't want to put a number on it."
3. Won't a stadium wear out before the city finishes paying for it?
This might not surprise you, but the mayor's staff doesn't think so. While fielding that question at a recent City Council meeting, Chief Administrative Officer Byron Marshall noted that Fenway Park and Wrigley Field are about 100 years old.
But those are the oldest baseball fields still in use, and the trend in the industry seems to be toward shorter life spans for such sporting facilities. A few days after Jones announced his stadium proposal in November, the Atlanta Braves announced that the team would leave Turner Field in 2017 — when it will be 20 years old.
Marshall says the city is planning to include maintenance requirements in its agreement with the Squirrels intended to extend the new field's lifespan. It's another detail that City Council members say they want to look at more closely before committing to the plan.
What happens beyond 30 years is anybody's guess, but Marshall says renovations are always a possibility.
4. Isn't Shockoe Bottom in a flood plain?
Is it ever. And it probably always will be. Marshall says that to eliminate the flooding issues in Shockoe Bottom once and for all, the city would have to spend more than $200 million to build a subway-sized tunnel to drain the area.
The city can mitigate flooding issues for substantially less, and that's what it's proposing to do in the case of the Shockoe development.
There are two primary concerns:
1. Putting a building in a flood plain makes the flood plain bigger. Think about dropping a cube of ice into a glass of water: The water level rises. The same thing happens when you drop a building onto a flooded lot: The boundaries of the floodplain expand. So, the city would build just enough infrastructure to make sure any water displaced by the new development in the event of a flood could be drained from the area.
2. Building code requires that emergency vehicles be able to reach housing located in a flood plain during a flood. That means, in essence, building a raised access road. In the case of the Bottom, that road would need to be between 3 and 5 feet above ground. In the mayor's proposal, the concourse around the ballpark doubles as the emergency access road.
So, it isn't financially feasible to simply fix the flood plain, as some council members have suggested, in hopes that private development can continue. But the city can commit to mitigate issues posed by flooding when given a specific development scenario. And that's what the mayor is proposing it do with his stadium plan.
5. Isn't the proposed stadium on or near important historic and archeological sites?
Yes, though how "on or near" is a point of contention. The mayor, relying on information provided by the city's Slave Trail Commission, contends the development will leave important sites undisturbed.
Activists and at least some historians disagree. Among them is Elizabeth Kambourian, who used old maps, city directories and newspapers to piece together the first slave-site map used by the city. She says her new research has uncovered four previously unmarked slave sites within the proposed development footprint and another seven along its perimeter.
The one thing all sides seem to agree upon is that no one will know for sure what happened where until digging begins.
To that end, City Council President Charles Samuel called for the developers to pay for an independent archeological excavation before construction began. Fellow council members shot down his proposal on a 5-4 vote.
Mayor Jones has committed to performing a "comprehensive historical assessment" before any work begins, and a team of archeologists will be on hand during construction.
Asked what will happen if the work uncovers a major find, the mayor's staff declines to speculate, but says the specialists will be able guide the process.
6. Can Shockoe Bottom handle the parking and traffic demands of a stadium?
If you've tried to drive through or park in Shockoe Bottom during peak business hours, you know it's a terrible mess you'd rather avoid — at least if you're in a car. Add a 7,000-seat stadium and you're in for total mayhem, or so go the concerns.
A preliminary study based on 2008 numbers suggests that existing infrastructure should be able to handle the influx of cars because games will take place after rush hour traffic has cleared and nearby parking decks have emptied.
Rick Tatnall, a City Hall watchdog, calls this preliminary study a sham. He notes that in its current form, the study ignores the addition of 1,135 apartments and condos that have gone up in the area since the numbers were taken. Tatnall also says the Franklin Street off-ramp from Interstate 95 is inadequate and likely will cause game traffic to back up onto the interstate. Tatnall refers to that scenario as "the Mayor's Shockoe Stadium Death Zone."
There should be a better idea of how valid those concerns are in the coming months. Now that council has given city staff the green light to continue negotiations, the administration says it will conduct a detailed traffic and parking study. The mayor's staff told council it didn't do the analysis first because it didn't want to spend the $100,000 to $200,000 it would cost before council signaled it was interested in pursuing the plan.
7. Where does my council member stand?
Six of nine City Council members voted to support continuing negotiations with private developers and landowners involved in the deal. The vote in no way commits the council members to the project and, to that end, all six supporting council members prefaced their votes with statements noting that they aren't sold on the plan and simply are looking for more details. With that, here's how they voted.
8. If the stadium is the sticking point, is there an alternative plan for the Bottom that doesn't include one?
Yes. In 2011 the city rolled out an official Shockoe Economic Revitalization Strategy that resulted from a series of public meetings. The detailed, 60-page plan lays out a strategy for developing the area and doesn't include a single mention of a stadium. The city has paid for and is in the process of implementing pieces of that strategy, including a redesign of the 17th Street Farmers' Market and an overhaul of the train shed behind Main Street Station.
More recently, the financial analysis that the mayor used to make his case for his stadium plan describes an alternative scenario that leaves the ballpark on the Boulevard but still includes a grocery store and 300 new apartments in Shockoe Bottom. The mayor's staff is quick to say that this scenario only describes what it believe is feasible; no developers have actually committed to building in the absence of a stadium.
Also, a coalition of local activists and residents opposed to locating a ballpark in the Bottom have released an alternative plan that proposes replacing the stadium with a memorial park while maintaining the proposed surrounding development.
The feasibility of the latter is unclear: Some City Council members have said that, while they're interested, the body doesn't have the resources or the staff to develop and vet any outside proposals. In short, it's up to the mayor's administration to put forward a plan, and the mayor contends that moving the ballpark from the Boulevard to the Bottom will result in so much more revenue for the city that it's only option worthy of serious consideration.
9. What questions remain unanswered?
There's still a lot we don't know about the plan. There are outstanding questions we've already covered — traffic and parking, as well as what an archeological dig in the area might uncover. Other major questions include:
What will the corresponding development on the Boulevard look like? The mayor's promise that his plan will bring in $200 million in new tax revenue during the next 20 years is almost entirely dependent on what happens on the Boulevard, and it's the project we know the least about. Because the development deals with city-owned land, the city is required by law to go through a procurement process as it proceeds with its plans on the Boulevard. The process is in motion, but expect City Council members to seek more details before the Shockoe plan is approved.
What happens if the Shockoe development doesn't generate enough revenue to pay for itself? The mayor's staff members have stressed that they intend to make the development as low risk as possible. Likewise, City Council members have made it clear they don't want to see taxpayers left holding the bag on another failed development project. The administration has suggested that developers will bear most of the risk through performance agreements that essentially would guarantee a minimum level of tax revenue. But how low-risk a proposition the project really is won't be evident until the end of the month, when negotiated deals are brought before City Council for review and, perhaps, approval.