April 07, 2004 News & Features » Cover Story


The Windup 

Secret plans for a sunken stadium in Shockoe Bottom are further along than you think.

As urban pioneers go, Phil Conein doesn't look the part.

The dapper, bushy-haired tech entrepreneur melds easily into the conservatively hip scene in Shockoe Bottom with the rest of the young professionals who've recently moved here. But in 1991, Conein remembers how the potent promise of cheap rent lured him to an old building on 17th Street. It was desolate, but he and his wife, Philise, liked the architecture and the neighborhood — and the price — so they moved the business they own together, Techead, into its uncharted waters.

“When we moved down here there was nothing,” he says in a soft but forceful tone. “Now, our building is second base.”

The Coneins have become unlikely players in the controversial push to build a downtown baseball stadium. Their business at 111 N. 17th St. sits in the path of the much-talked-about, $58 million proposal that aims to relocate the Richmond Braves from the Boulevard to Shockoe Bottom. The plan makes a lot of sense, says Conein, even if he doesn't like the idea of moving his business.

“I personally feel it's good for the city,” he says. “But I'm torn. I love the Bottom. We're not going to roll over for it, either.”

During early negotiations in December, the Coneins rejected an initial offer from the Richmond Ballpark Initiative, a group of local business owners pushing the new stadium, to purchase their property. They won't discuss how much they were offered, other than to say it wasn't nearly enough. “It was almost laughable,” Philise Conein says. Their property is assessed at more than $350,000. RBI offered more than that, the Coneins say, but they say it is worth much more.

The offer illustrates how serious the ballpark proposal has become. It's more than just a band of anonymous baseball-loving business owners chucking about wild ideas. After months of closed-door meetings and secrecy, RBI spokesman Jon Newman says the group will unveil its plans to the public “very soon,” probably within weeks.

Dreams of downtown baseball are beginning to materialize.

Bruce Baldwin, general manager of the Richmond Braves, says the team's parent company in Atlanta has now committed to giving the RBI proposal a serious look. The team's Richmond contract expires Sept. 15, at the end of this season. In the meantime, instead of signing a new 10-year contract as originally expected, the Braves are in the final stages of completing a three-year deal to remain here to study the proposal, Baldwin says. The Braves are giving RBI until October to pull the deal together.

At that point, they'll decide whether to pursue a new stadium or renovate The Diamond as originally planned. As an enticement, the Richmond Braves, the top farm club of the major league Atlanta Braves, have informally agreed to contribute several million dollars to jump-start the project — perhaps as much as $10 million.

Most of the project's details remain hazy at best. Despite repeated requests, those affiliated with the Richmond Ballpark Initiative have refused to discuss the plans in detail with news media, including Style, and have shown only general sketches and concepts to select groups of business owners and community groups around Richmond. The group's representative did discuss the project in general terms. It is still only in the exploratory stages, says Newman, the RBI spokesman. “The location and the exact design are constantly changing,” he says.

Clearly, though, the ballpark boosters are mobilizing. The contract offer to the Coneins suggests that RBI has developers waiting in the wings. It is believed by some people in the community, and alluded to in some local news reports, that the new ballpark would rely on charitable contributions for funding — but that doesn't appear to be the case.

Those who have seen the plans firsthand describe a mixed-use development that incorporates a 7,500-seat baseball stadium as an anchor to a much larger development, one that includes retail shops, apartments, office buildings and even a hotel. The project would stretch from Franklin to Broad streets between 17th and 18th streets, those familiar with the plans say, and would largely be paid for by private developers who would profit not from baseball, but from the ancillary developments around it.

Architectural renderings presented to property owners in the area show a baseball stadium that sits two stories below street level (the height of the stadium's walls would be about two or three stories, no taller than the row of buildings on 17th Street). Part of a “ballpark district,” the stadium and the development around it would be designed to mesh with Shockoe's historic surroundings, incorporating some buildings along 18th Street into the development itself.

But as the public debate kicks into high gear over the next few months, RBI will face mounting opposition. Preservationists say the project would be too intrusive, disturbing the oldest section of the city. Many residents and surrounding business owners are concerned about the traffic that the ballpark and ensuing development would generate. Others are skeptical about parking — initial presentations show very little on-site stadium parking; most fans would have to park blocks away on the street or in designated lots.

A plethora of issues will arise over the next few months. Questions of economics abound. The ballpark proposal promises to test already terse relations between the city and Chesterfield County. Both jurisdictions, as well as Henrico County, must cough up $500,000 apiece annually to pay off $18.5 million in bonds to make the deal fly.

But the success of the project appears to boil down to three key questions: Will developers really pick up the tab? Will a downtown stadium become a catalyst for development or a headache for nearby residents? And even for $18.5 million, is the project really worth the investment?

Acquiring the land promises to be the first major hurdle. Key landowners in the Bottom, most importantly the Loving family, have so far balked at selling. While the Coneins haven't yet committed to sell, they are about “60 percent” there. They won't sell on the cheap. Ditto for Morton Weiman, president of Weiman's Bakery Inc., which sits at the corner of 17th and Grace streets.

Weiman says it will cost a pretty penny to move the bakery into a new location. The company bakes between 115,000 and 140,000 pounds of bread every month, mostly for local schools, nursing homes and restaurants, he says, and can't afford an interruption in business. He adds that the equipment in his building can't be moved. He estimates the cost of building a new factory, with new bakery equipment, between $1.6 million and $1.8 million.

The family business has been in the Bottom since 1945, but the Weimans are certainly willing to discuss a sale, Weiman says.

“If the RBI wants to be realistic about the property values, I think it will happen,” says Weiman, 69. “We're not married to the property. Everything I have is for sale, except my wife, my son, my grandchildren and my cocker spaniel.”

Weiman thinks a Shockoe ballpark makes sense. “I think it's a great idea,” he says. “But we're looking out for Number One, Weiman's Bakery.”

Others in the area have indicated otherwise. Through its real estate agent, Loving's Produce Co. has said it isn't interested in selling its building across the parking lot from 17th Street and Franklin, or its other properties in the vicinity of the proposed ballpark. The Loving family owns more land in the area than anyone else — all told, the family owns property with a total assessed value of $4.6 million, city records show.

Clifford B. Porter, the family's real estate agent, says RBI made a presentation to the Lovings, but that's about it. Porter says they have told RBI their property isn't for sale. Will they reconsider? “The Lovings property is not for sale, period,” Porter says.

Yet the negotiations are in the early stages, and the family hasn't received an official offer from RBI. And some believe that the Lovings may eventually warm to the idea. “I haven't heard of any property owners that vehemently said ‘No,'” Weiman says, adding that he has no problem moving to the other side of Broad as long as he remains close to Interstate 95. “There's plenty of property right up the street.”

But the initial negotiations with local property owners suggest that assembling the property won't come without a fight. And if the price gets too high, it will likely turn into a deal-breaker.

In similar development deals in other cities, the city or county typically acquires the land and leases it to the developer for next to nothing, says Lane E. Welter, director of minor league sports for HNTB Architecture in Kansas City, Mo., the largest sports-stadium architectural firm in the country. There are the issues of cost and the risk incurred with digging up land that is a vast unknown.

“If you are able to get a piece of property that is owned by the city or the county that they are willing to provide for the development of a ballpark, that's a plus,” he says. “If the developer is having to purchase the land from private owners, that's a negative.”

With most stadium projects in other cities, the localities have been able to acquire the properties needed for development and act as the landowner much like at The Diamond. The Braves lease The Diamond from the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, a political subdivision controlled by Richmond and Henrico and Chesterfield counties. And Welter can't think of any minor-league, mixed-use developments in which the developer incurs the risks of acquiring potentially unstable land.

“Typically the developers are not about spending their money,” he says, “they are about spending somebody else's money.”

The Bottom poses a unique dilemma in this regard. In other cities such as Toledo, Ohio, and Memphis, Tenn., developers were able to assemble the property needed for ballpark developments because the land was relatively worthless, in run-down manufacturing districts or in areas pockmarked by abandoned buildings.

The Bottom is different. During the last few years, the area has seen a boom in development. New restaurants are opening every few weeks. High-end loft apartments along Tobacco Row have lured thousands of young professionals into the area. Main Street Station reopened for business late last year, and for the first time, the Bottom is luring new retail that 10 years ago seemed out of the question.

Recent U.S. Census data shows that during the last few years, the Bottom has become the fastest-growing residential area in the city.

Moreover, if the landowners refuse to sell, it's unlikely the city will attempt to raze the area under eminent domain laws, especially for private development. And if it came to that, Baldwin says, the Braves wouldn't participate.

“I think the last thing the city would want to do is pull eminent domain,” Baldwin says. “If you can't raise the money, it's a dead deal.”

Paying for the property acquisition is something of a Catch-22. After all, it's the Bottom's recent growth and proximity to the interstate and downtown, that make the ballpark attractive to developers, who need assurances that the project will fly when baseball season is over. The Braves will fill the park only 72 nights a year.

The other areas of the city mentioned as potential ballpark sites — along the Canal Walk and in Manchester, particularly — lack the same momentum as the Bottom and add considerably more risk to the equation for developers.

Also, the Braves don't appear interested in the other sites. People close to the negotiations say the Braves don't like Manchester because it lacks interstate access, and the key site along the Canal Walk — the main 9-acre parcel bounded by Fifth, Seventh, Byrd and Tredegar streets owned by Ethyl Corp. — poses similar access issues. It's also expensive. Those close to the talks say Ethyl has asked for about $20 million for the site.

Aside from the high cost of assembling the properties in the Bottom, there are other key issues that are likely to jack up the price. First are environmental concerns. The RBI's current stadium proposal calls for dropping the stadium about two stories below street level, according to property owners who've seen the drawings, and it may require public improvements to make access to the property easier.

The Bottom is the Bottom for a reason: It sits nearly at the level of the James River. Dropping the stadium into the ground will be expensive. An elaborate subsurface draining system likely will be required, Welter says. That typically costs between $500,000 and $2 million. In the case of the Bottom, the cost of installing a “de-watering system” probably will come in at the high end, considering it's already low and prone to flooding.

And then there are other issues. On older properties, construction crews typically discover archeological finds and environmental hazards that must be addressed, also bumping up the construction costs. It doesn't get any more historic than the Bottom.

“Chances are in an older, historic site you are going to come across something,” says Welter, which usually means the developers aren't going to assume the risk. At some point, he says, the developers may require the city to guarantee the property.

“If I were the developer, I would try to make them responsible for whatever is uncovered out there,” Welter says. “You get into all kinds of environmental issues; all of these things add costs.”

City and county officials have reiterated an unwillingness to shell out any more than $18.5 million, the amount all three jurisdictions approved in the fall to renovate the aging Diamond. To date, several City Council members and City Manager Calvin Jamison have reiterated that the city isn't willing to assume any more of the costs. Chesterfield County's Board of Supervisors has even suggested it may not approve redirecting its portion of the $18.5 million for a new stadium at all. Henrico County, which also must approve the switch, has so far remained indifferent.

“We are evaluating our position as we speak,” says Kelly Miller, chairman of the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors, adding that the board likely will vote on the issue sometime in the next couple of weeks. “We're taking a look at it and will make a decision pretty soon on whether to take it back or not. We have needs in Chesterfield County that we could use that money for.”

City Councilman Manoli Loupassi, who serves as chairman of council's stadium operating committee, says the deal hinges on the promise of getting a new stadium with the $18.5 million in public dollars, and no more. “I think the bottom line is, if we can get a new stadium without additional public outlay, then why not?” he says.

Whether that is realistic is open for debate. Experts who study stadium financing say it usually doesn't work out that way. There are often attempts by developers to secure tax breaks — such as the $12 million break the city gave the developers of Brown's Island — and often they come back for capital as the project moves along.

One of the key questions, says Robert A. Baade, a sports economist at Lake Forest College in Illinois, is how much control localities have once the project shifts into high gear. “You still are assuming a good deal of risk by signing off on an agreement like that when you have no guarantee that they can raise this money,” he says. “Once you start down this road, can you turn back the clock?”

In other words, what happens if the costs come in higher than expected? Will Richmond get stuck with a half-finished baseball stadium and no Braves?

It's too early to know what will shake out, but Baade says these questions need to be addressed head-on. There are plenty of examples of teams pulling rank unless they get what they want. Minor-league teams relocate and change affiliation more often than their major-league counterparts. The Braves moved their class A Macon (Ga.) Braves upstate to Rome before the 2003 season. And the Braves are threatening to move their AA team from Greenville, S.C. — perhaps to Cherokee County, Ga. — after more than 20 years if Greenville Municipal Stadium isn't improved or replaced.

The Braves insist that they won't jeopardize their 38-year relationship with the Richmond region over a new stadium. But the Braves have already declined to sign a 10-year lease to stay in Richmond while officials explore the new stadium. Meanwhile, there is new management in Atlanta, and even Baldwin admits there is no guarantee the Braves will simply revert to the original plans if the new ballpark fizzles.

“I can't tell you what's going to happen tomorrow,” Baldwin says.

There is also the question of value: Is a new stadium proposal worth the investment from the community? RBI's Newman says the deal would become a catalyst for downtown, spurring millions of dollars in new development around the ballpark and bringing people downtown who would stop off at local restaurants for dinner, shop at the surrounding retail stores and spur all kinds of spinoff development.

Proponents point to the new downtown stadium in Memphis, AutoZone Park, where the minor-league Redbirds play. New office buildings went up, restaurants opened, and the stadium broke several attendance records after it opened in 2000. The team has drawn, on average, more than 10,000 fans per game. The Toledo Mud Hens saw attendance nearly double when the stadium opened in 2002, jumping from 4,300 to more than 7,700 a game, despite concerns in the community about a lack of parking (there was no on-site parking, much like the plans for a Shockoe ballpark).

Cities such as Nashville, Tenn., Louisville, Ky., Akron, Ohio, Manchester, N.H., and others are building or have built similar mixed-use ballpark developments in the past few years using the same concept. Welter says the new downtown stadium that opened in Akron in 1997 sparked a revitalization of nearby buildings and helped clean out a seedy section of town once dotted with bars and adult bookstores.

“Walk down through Akron today and there are thriving businesses there,” says Welter, whose firm designed the stadium. “Where did they come from? Does [the stadium] generate taxes and jobs, or did it just relocate businesses and taxes from other cities? I can't tell you. What the ballpark did was generate new excitement and brought people back to that downtown core.”

There has been little independent study of the economic impact of minor-league ballparks, however, and many of the mixed-use projects are too new to declared bona-fide success stories. Most of the academic research in sports economics has focused on major league ballparks. They teach some important lessons, economist Baade says.

Almost all of the independently conducted impact studies show that new ballparks tend to be a wash for taxpayers. They generate very little economic impact at all.

Dennis Coates, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, studied 37 cities with major-league ballparks and found the stadiums led to a net decrease in per-capita income after factoring in the stadium's impact on other entertainment venues in and around the city. In his study of baseball stadiums, he found that the average 37,000-seat stadium resulted in a $10 reduction in per-capita income. In other words, the cost of building the new stadium outweighed the economic impact for taxpayers because the stadium didn't generate new business. Instead, it lured business away from other entertainment venues such as nearby movie theaters and restaurants. By and large, when attending the game, people tend to eat and spend their money at the stadium.

“I think the lessons to be learned from the major leagues apply perfectly to the minor-league setting,” Coates says. “Really, it's an either-or. If we go to the Braves game on Tuesday night, we're not going to the movies on Tuesday night.”

Are people spending more than they would in any given week because they go to a new ballpark to see a Braves game? Coates says the existing research shows not. “We were spending the money somewhere else before. That's one of the things that stadium builders almost never recognize,” he says. “People aren't taking money out of their savings to go the ballpark. That just doesn't make sense.”

Baldwin agrees that ballparks aren't big economic engines. But that's not the point, he says. “It's not tourism. It's not Ukrop's. It's not Philip Morris,” Baldwin concurs. “The Richmond Braves — it's more of a quality of life issue.”

In other words, it's another attraction that benefits the community as a whole. It's one more feather in the cap for downtown, not a savior.

That's precisely why Jennie Knapp, executive director of the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods, is outraged by the proposal. She says the Shockoe ballpark would only disturb the historic fabric of the Bottom and make the bustling residential community there less livable.

“They are coming in and saying the community is sick and needs a shot in the arm,” Knapp says. “Shockoe Bottom is the city's fastest growing census track. Why would you shoot that kind of success down?”

The Bottom is at a crossroads. As the area has become more attractive for residential development, many residents grow frustrated with the area's rowdy nightlife on Friday and Saturday nights, when the streets are packed with cruising teenagers and college-age partygoers. Whether a ballpark would add to that rowdiness or help tame it through commercial gentrification is open to debate.

“The people that come to a game are not going to live here,'” argues Knapp, who says a ballpark will lead to “5,000 cars vying for parking spaces, honking their horns, [people] putting their candy-wrappers in the street, lighting up the night sky for baseball.”

Ballpark proponents, however, say the development will only help weed out the bad element by raising property values and pushing out the seedy bars. Techead's Conein, who regularly finds empty beer bottles and condoms on his stoop, is one such believer. “It will clean this area up,” he says.

Once people see the plans that Conein's seen in private, he can't help but think the ballpark boosters will win over the people of Richmond. It's a beautiful plan, he says. “I think if only they saw the plans and how nice it will be. … with all the hotels and businesses that they are going to move in here,” he says. “It's an easy decision.” S

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