With less than a month remaining before submissions are due, prospective respondents to the city’s solicitation for interest in redeveloping its so-called Diamond District were invited to tour the site and surrounding area at an in-person event held Wednesday.
About 75 people converged on The Diamond for the site visit, which followed last week’s initial meeting on the city’s formal request for interest (RFI) for a ballpark-anchored mixed-use development that would replace the aging baseball stadium and fill the roughly 60 acres of primarily city-owned land around it.
Originally planned to be a bus tour, Wednesday’s gathering was changed to self-guided tours due to the recent surge in Omicron variant cases. Attendees were greeted with a presentation from city staff and given tour maps that guided them through nearby neighborhoods, via Arthur Ashe Boulevard, Hermitage Road and other connections.
In attendance were representatives from both local and out-of-town firms, including real estate developers, architects and engineers. Local faces among the crowd included Better Housing Coalition’s Greta Harris and Ashley Peace with Sauer Properties, which owns about 40 acres along Hermitage farther south.
Sharon Ebert, Richmond’s deputy chief administrative officer for economic and community development, said the tours were intended to help familiarize potential respondents with the area, particularly out-of-town firms considering the project.
Such firms represented in last week’s meeting hailed from as far as New York, San Francisco, Texas and Toronto, according to an attendance list provided by the city.
Leonard Sledge, the city’s economic development director, emphasized the site’s central location along the East Coast and immediate access to Interstate 95 at its crossroads with I-64.
“This is the best redevelopment site along the eastern seaboard,” Sledge said. “You’re right in the middle of the I-95 spine that goes from Maine to Florida, within a day’s drive of two-thirds of the U.S. population.”
Pointing to the interstate that runs along the northern edge of the property, Sledge added, “I think that’s a great site for a Class A, LEED-certified headquarters tower. That’s my dream for that site.”
The city is seeking proposals that include a replacement of The Diamond with a 10,000-capacity stadium built to current standards, infrastructure improvements, a hotel, and uses including retail, residential and office.
Noting last month’s announcement that commercial real estate data giant CoStar will expand its office complex along the riverfront, Sledge told the crowd, “We think there’s a tremendous opportunity for additional Class A office development to anchor in this part of the city as well.”
“We believe that this is an underutilized piece of real estate. We want to see it redeveloped in a smart manner, but also in a manner that represents the highest and best use for this redevelopment site,” he said. “It will create a revenue opportunity for the City of Richmond so that we can continue to provide services that are needed for our citizens, and also an opportunity to help keep our taxes low.”
Proposals also are expected to help the city relocate functions of the VCU-owned Sports Backers Stadium and the city-owned Arthur Ashe Jr. Athletic Center, both of which would be demolished to make way for new development. A shared parking strategy is expected in the project, which should also integrate transit, bicycle and pedestrian access, Sledge said.
The city is also emphasizing opportunities for minority business development and contracting, and for proposals to minimize financial burdens on the city for the infrastructure work and the new stadium. The RFI suggests minimal impacts could be achieved through direct equity contributions, team stadium lease payments, sharing of stadium naming rights and other approaches.
One attendee asked if a single developer is preferred for the entire 60-acre site, or if proposals for parts of the site would be considered. Maritza Pechin, a deputy director in the city’s planning department who’s leading the RFI effort, said either approach would be given consideration.
“The developer does not have to take the whole site,” Pechin said. “We have in the RFI that we may select one developer or development teams depending on what kinds of submissions we receive in our evaluation process.”
A panel consisting of city staff, City Council members and VCU staff will evaluate the submissions, which are due Feb. 15. It then will compile a short list of firms to be invited to submit development proposals in April or May, with final selections to be made in the spring or summer.
Among those in attendance for Wednesday’s event were Todd “Parney” Parnell of the Richmond Flying Squirrels, Ed McLaughlin of VCU Athletics, and City Councilmembers Kathleen Jordan and Ann-Frances Lambert, whose districts include or border the 60 acres.
Jordan and Lambert hosted a community meeting on the project for area residents and constituents Wednesday evening. The meeting was streamed online, and a recording is planned to be posted on the city’s website and YouTube channel.