‘It is able to be pulled off’: Diamond District project faces tight timeline to deliver new ballpark

The area that makes up the Diamond District includes the namesake baseball stadium and nearby Sports Backers Stadium. (BizSense file images)

As Richmond gets closer to selecting a developer for its Diamond District redevelopment, the window for delivering the project’s new anchor baseball stadium by the Opening Day 2025 deadline is getting narrower.

And with two years expected to be needed for construction of the ballpark — not counting design work, permitting and other approvals that would precede it — parties involved agree that the timeframe will be challenging to meet, but are confident they’ll be able to pull it off.

Developers vying for the project that includes a replacement for The Diamond say such ballparks typically take about 24 months to complete, meaning construction would theoretically need to start in the first quarter of 2023, in order for the stadium to open by April 2025.

That’s the deadline that Major League Baseball has set for all pro baseball venues to comply with new facility standards, including The Diamond, home to the minor-league Richmond Flying Squirrels. The 37-year-old stadium has been deemed functionally obsolete and unfeasible for renovation, hence the plan for a new ballpark, which the Double-A club was first promised over a decade ago.

The new 10,000-capacity stadium, which the city envisions to be built south of The Diamond to allow for play during construction, would be part of the first phase of a multi-phased redevelopment of the 67-acre site that consists of city- and VCU-owned land. The larger development, to include a mix of office, residential, retail and hotel uses and related infrastructure improvements, is projected for completion over a 15-year period.

But before site work and construction on the first phase can start, a tight window remains between now and Q1 of next year for that phase to be designed, and for the city to approve it and issue needed permits. The latter is a function of City Hall that for years has been blamed for project delays.

The 60-plus acres are bordered by Arthur Ashe Boulevard, Hermitage Road, the interstate and the railroad tracks.

City administrators maintain that the timeframe is achievable with the schedule they’ve laid out, which calls for the city to select its development team next month and put the project to the City Council for approval this fall.

“It is able to be pulled off,” said Maritza Pechin, the city’s Diamond District project manager. “The first thing we need is someone to help us build it, and that’s getting the developer on board.”

Proposals forthcoming

Full proposals from the three finalist teams are due to the city June 28, the deadline set by a request for offers (RFO) put out to those teams late last month. The teams that remain in contention – Richmond Community Development Partners, RVA Diamond Partners and Vision300 Partnerswere narrowed down from a field of 15 respondents to an initial solicitation for the project late last year.

That solicitation included a list of comparable ballparks built in recent years. The most recent ballparks listed, for both Double-A and Triple-A facilities, were all completed within a two-year timeframe, according to reports, including the $75 million Riverfront Stadium in Kansas, home to the Double-A Wichita Wind Surge.

Richmond’s new stadium, which would seat 8,000 with space for 2,000 standing-room patrons, is expected to cost about $80 million and fill 7 to 10 acres of the 67-acre site. The Diamond currently seats about 9,500, , with attendance for Flying Squirrels games averaging over 6,000.

Given the scope of the new stadium, David Carlock, whose Machete Group advisory firm is leading the Richmond Community Development Partners team, said the timeframe to complete it by 2025 is challenging but achievable.

David Carlock

Still, Carlock said, “There isn’t a whole lot of ‘float’ in this schedule,” using a construction term for essentially the amount of wiggle room in a project schedule without delaying completion. “There’s not much of a margin for things to go in a way that’s not completely expected, and that has a way of happening on these kinds of larger-scale development projects.”

Carlock added, “The concern here is that, normally when you do this, you want to build a certain amount of contingency or floats into the schedule. If you think it’s really going to take 24 months, you don’t want to actually leave yourself 24 months. You want to budget for 26 or 27 months, because sometimes things happen that you want to have some leftover time for.”

While that 24-month timeframe would seemingly require the project to start within the first three months of next year, Carlock, who has advised on sports and entertainment venue developments across the country, noted that such projects can be accelerated, but at a cost.

“It’s possible to do them faster. Some of that turns on the complexity of the program: what the design ultimately consists of, how much interior fit-out work there is, and other considerations like that. Some of it also relates to whether whoever is ultimately paying for the stadium is willing to pay for acceleration,” Carlock said.

“You can accelerate jobs within reason,” he said. “Nine women can’t make a baby in a month. But in a construction project, you can do things to shave the schedule down if you’re willing to pay additional money for it.”

Costs and finances to be determined

How the stadium will be paid for remains to be seen, as such financials are to be detailed in the proposals that the development teams are finalizing.

The city’s RFO, posted on its Diamond District webpage, requires the teams to lay out their financing plans, including private investment for the project’s stadium-anchored first phase, private investment for subsequent phases, use of revenue bonds, approach to infrastructure investment, basis for purchase price for the land, and pro forma and bond cash flows.

One thing that is clear is Richmond administrators’ desire to minimize financial impacts on the city and its taxpayers, a point that Economic Development Director Leonard Sledge reiterated at a public meeting on the project last week.

“Our goal is to zero-out or reduce to the greatest extent possible the city’s financial responsibility for this project,” Sledge told attendees.

Richmond Economic Development Director Leonard Sledge at a Diamond District event in January.

Responding to questions from the audience, Sledge added, “We’re making sure that any deal that the city enters into is non-recourse and not backstopped by the city. If there are not sufficient revenues to cover the debt service, that’s not the city’s responsibility or priority. That falls on the developer and potentially the community development authority.”

Community development authorities, or CDAs, are a financing tool that governments can use to generate tax revenue to support a development as it progresses. Similar to TIFs, or tax-increment financing districts, CDAs have been used for Short Pump Town Center, White Oak Village and Reynolds Crossing in Henrico County, which also expects to use one for the arena-anchored GreenCity project.

Design work to follow

The RFO also requires that teams indicate their readiness to deliver the new stadium by the 2025 deadline with identified milestones, stadium team members, coordination with Major League Baseball, and a kickoff agenda to involve an initial meeting with the city, VCU and the Flying Squirrels within 30 days after the development team selection is announced in July.

Carlock said such urgency in the schedule will be needed, as he said design work will need to get going right away.

“Frankly, you want to get started on design immediately after they make a selection. You could probably absorb a month, but at some point it becomes a zero-sum game. There’s only so much time left between now and March of ’25, so you want to waste as little time as you possibly can,” Carlock said.

“Before you start construction, you’ve got to be at least part of the way through your design process. You don’t have to be all the way through your design process. You can fast-track,” he said. “What you don’t want is a mad scramble to get it done quickly and they get something they don’t really want. The Squirrels and VCU have been waiting a long time for a new building. They’re going to live with this for 25 years. So, you want to make sure it’s right.”

At last week’s meeting, Sledge emphasized that a priority is for design work to get started within 30 days of the development team selection, adding: “I assure you it will be more than just the design work on the baseball stadium; there’ll be a lot of governmental work that’s taking place behind the scenes.”

Permitting to be expedited

As for permitting, administrators maintain that City Hall has the capacity to review and permit the new stadium within the timeframe needed, so long as design documents and permit applications from the development team are completed on time.

To further expedite the process, the city plans to start reviewing permits for the stadium prior to applications being submitted, using the city’s pre-development review process to, as stated in an email, “ensure the design documents are developed in accordance with federal, state and local building codes, as well as MLB design standards.”

Administrators said the city may outsource the building design review, as it has done with other reviews since late last year, if the city’s in-house capacity necessitates it. They said the development team would also have the option of using the city’s third-party review option for plan reviews and inspections if that would help meet the timeline.

Other steps to be taken to speed up the process include drafting of a purchase and sale agreement, development agreement and any other related documents immediately after the development team announcement, so that those agreements, once finalized, can be introduced to the City Council this fall.

Should the new stadium not be built in time for the 2025 season, administrators said that would not adversely affect other development in Phase 1 or the rest of the Diamond District.

A site visit for developers was held on the grounds of The Diamond in January.

“We have every reason to believe that the selected developer will be able to complete the new baseball stadium by opening day of 2025,” the city’s email said.

“It is anticipated that the development work in Phase 1 will include not only the new baseball stadium but several mixed-use buildings, as well as new streets, infrastructure and a portion of new open/green spaces. Because Phase 1 will include new streets and parcels, each building will have its own start and completion timeline within Phase 1. Therefore a delay of the stadium parcel should not have an impact on the other parcels under development.”

Carlock said discussions he’s had with administrators have assured him that the city can come through on its part of the project.

“We have confidence that the mayor and his administration will be able to secure the support they need to get through council. If we’re fortunate enough to be selected, we’ll obviously do everything we can to support that effort,” he said.

As far as permitting goes, Carlock said, “Typically these kinds of public assembly jobs, you get at least a little help on permitting. You don’t get stuck at the back of the line; you tend to get your comments reviewed quickly and get some priority. We’re not expecting that this thing gets walked through in 48 hours, but we’re also not assuming we get jammed up and it takes six months to get permitted.”

Stepping up to the plate

At last week’s meeting, Sledge said the only thing in the way of the project’s success is selecting a development team and letting it get to work.

“Major League Baseball is fully aware of the effort that’s underway here to see the site redeveloped. The teams that are still part of this process, they understand the urgency of opening in 2025,” Sledge said. “I think the only way that this thing falls apart is if we don’t have a deal in place and construction moving.”

Among those in attendance at the meeting were Jason Guillot and Jordan Kramer with the RVA Diamond Partners team. Guillot, a principal with Thalhimer Realty Partners, declined to comment for this story.

Mark Hourigan, who is co-leading the Vision300 Partners team, responded to calls from BizSense but could not be reached for comment.

Todd “Parney” Parnell, COO of the Flying Squirrels, said he couldn’t speak on what would happen if the new stadium is not completed in time for the 2025 season, but he shared city administrators’ confidence that the deadline will be met.

“It’s been pretty clear that MLB is doing this to make sure that people are getting in compliance, and that is our goal. And our goal to get in compliance is by having a new ballpark, because it would be basically impossible at The Diamond,” Parnell said.

“As a franchise, it’s every intention to get the new ballpark built on time. That’s going to require an awful lot of timework in order to get it done, and right now we don’t even know who’s on the team yet,” he said. “We’ll know that once the city makes their decision, and then we can get right to work with whoever they choose. We’re fully confident that we can get it done.”

Correction: The Diamond’s current seating capacity is about 9,500. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported a lower figure.

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Phil Perkins
Phil Perkins
15 days ago

Going to be fascinating to watch how they botch this major project.

Ryan Foster
Ryan Foster
15 days ago

It sure is interesting how it takes months to get a permit for a bathroom remodel and magically they can permit an entire stadium project in time….

Jay Leighton Wells
Jay Leighton Wells
15 days ago

The time line only works for them because they don’t have to deal with getting permits.

Jeff Stein
Jeff Stein
15 days ago

Why should MLBs deadline for ballpark compliance be the main consideration here for the design and construction schedule? Surely there will be some waiver process/allowance to allow franchises with ballparks under construction at the time the MLBs arbitrary deadline has passed to be an exception. I hope someone at the franchise and city is communicating this to MLB right this moment.

Michael P Morgan-Dodson
Michael P Morgan-Dodson
15 days ago
Reply to  Jeff Stein

That might be true if it was nearing completion in 2025 but as others have said no one, I MEAN NO ONE, outside of City employees and these prospective developers, think they can and will meet the deadline. I am thinking 2025 rolls around the Squirrels announce their relocation out of state.

JORDAN TUCKER
JORDAN TUCKER
15 days ago

As they should

Ed Christina
Ed Christina
12 days ago

LOl no, they will move out to some place in Henrico, and the field will be built on time and under budget.

Bruce Milam
Bruce Milam
11 days ago

The attendance numbers for the Squirrels are always #1or #2 for AA level baseball and in the the top ten for all minor league parks. The MLB is not allowing this franchise to vacate this market. It’s a Double team in a Triple A market, so the Squirrels aren’t leaving voluntarily either. This will get done at this location without losing our team. Fortunately the current ballpark can stand until the new one is ready for occupancy.

Roger Turner
Roger Turner
9 days ago
Reply to  Bruce Milam

I hope they are not “selling their selves short” with a 8K permanent seating capacity (2k standing room only) stadium. The Squirrels do a remarkable job marketing a terrible facility. I would think you could increase suite sales 50% and attendance at least 25% for the foreseeable future with a new ballpark, especially one done well. Can you imagine a new stadium that close to Scotts Addition with bars and restaurants along the outfield terrace but still technically in the stadium? Apartments and Condos overlooking the stadium? It’s a natural fit for some place like “Wood and Iron” to have… Read more »

Dustin Henderson
Dustin Henderson
15 days ago

This project will likely go millions over budget and a year past the scheduled completion date.

Brian Glass
Brian Glass
15 days ago

The construction timeline is extremely tight right now for completion by opening day in late March 2025 and there are other items to take into consideration as well: If the stadium is built in the southwest corner of the Diamond District, near the railroad tracks, in all probability, Sports Backers Stadium will have to be relocated to the VCU Sports Complex. That means that VCU will have to build the replacement facility ASAP and might have to find an alternate site for Sports Backers Stadium so that demolition can take place. At the present time there’s a supply problem throughout… Read more »

Michael P Morgan-Dodson
Michael P Morgan-Dodson
15 days ago
Reply to  Brian Glass

Very true Brian and I would add I don’t see anyway if a CDA (or some other authority) is created it will complete its setup process and issue bonds (if we don’t have a citizens revolt over the moral clause LIE city always tries to sell) in a process that will take 9-12 months minimum.

Josh Galloway
Josh Galloway
15 days ago
Reply to  Brian Glass

Brian, you make some good points. Regarding schedule, there is certainly some opportunity to make use of more time than the article and recent commentary has suggested. By all means early site-work will allow for design to progress in the background while on-site work is making good progress – an IPD or Design-Build arrangement can achieve this. The right team should certainly have the expertise, experience, and willingness begin to start project execution sooner than “the first three months of next year” and factor in that 5-day-a-week working will likely not be sufficient. At the end of the day, so… Read more »

Michael P Morgan-Dodson
Michael P Morgan-Dodson
12 days ago
Reply to  Josh Galloway

Won’t have signed contracts til Jan 1st, 2023. City Council takes off ALL of August and this would have to be introduced (with deal done and ready for review) by the 3rd Monday in July to make it onto the September docket. And Council committee process means a paper if voted on 30 days or so after it is introduced. I could see this (if they hurried) getting to Council with introduction at the late September meeting, public comments and council committees pushing it through, and a possible vote at the first November meeting. It would them take the City… Read more »

Roger Turner
Roger Turner
14 days ago
Reply to  Brian Glass

I wish them the best but would bet a lot of money the park will not open in 2025. I am currently involved in a couple of larger construction projects that would need some of the same materials and equipment that would be common to this facility. My suppliers are quoting 18 months before it even arrives on site for orders placed today. Without a winning bidder and a design nailed down and contracts in place I don’t see how they could get any orders in place in the next nine months for this same equipment and realistically probably much… Read more »

Bruce Milam
Bruce Milam
11 days ago
Reply to  Roger Turner

Roger hits on the most important issue and that’s supply of concrete and steel. The steel supply shortage has existed for 20 years, and we chased away the largest supply of concrete workers when when we buckled down on illegal aliens. Interest rates have been so low artificially since 2010, failing to track inflation for 12 years, that we forget that they are still low historically. The other logistic issues are resolvable. This project will have its hiccups but it will happen.

Steve Fox
Steve Fox
15 days ago

City Council and the mayor will botch this as usual. We’ve only been “researching” a new stadium for over 20 years now.

KC Funk
KC Funk
15 days ago

Not in my life have I ever seen a bunch of bigger downers than you guys. How about giving this team some credit before calling the project a failure. They are going about this process the correct way with tons of collaboration and input from the entire community and within a proposed financial structure that limits the city’s liability if things go sideways. These are all lessons learned from prior failed projects and things that the community specifically asked for. They currently have three very competent development teams preparing their proposals for the end of the month. I for one… Read more »

Phil Perkins
Phil Perkins
15 days ago
Reply to  KC Funk

“The best indicator of future behavior is past behavior.” If Richmond City government has any involvement in something, you can expect a train wreck. Every. Single. Time.

JORDAN TUCKER
JORDAN TUCKER
15 days ago
Reply to  KC Funk

You haven’t watched RCC in action for 45-50 years evidently.
“Team Richmond” is a joke.

Jay Leighton Wells
Jay Leighton Wells
11 days ago
Reply to  KC Funk
  1. You’ve got to be kidding me. The city has a horrible record. So much so, my family and I do not even go into the city anymore. There is nothing left but empty buildings and graffiti.
Craig Davis
Craig Davis
10 days ago

only someone who doesn’t come into the city would say that. That’s completely wrong. companies are moving into not out of the city. the construction cranes are in the city not out of it, apartment buildings and private development is flooding the city. I’ll keep wishing for continued momentum and success while you cower in the counties thinking you know something about things beyond your knowledge.

Bruce Milam
Bruce Milam
11 days ago
Reply to  KC Funk

The Debbie Downers on Bizsense are never in short supply, though often outnumbered by the Amateur Architects. It keeps the discussion alive on this website. . I’m very familiar with the permitting frustrations of the development community but there would be no growth if the development community was made up solely of pessimists and quitters. Optimism still reigns supreme for continued growth and financial success in the City.

JORDAN TUCKER
JORDAN TUCKER
8 days ago
Reply to  Bruce Milam

I think many who have been around a long time are just tired of the complete ineptness of City officials. Decades of spinning their wheels and acting like they don’t know what the problems are. The City will grow in spite of them , definitely not because of them.

Craig Davis
Craig Davis
10 days ago
Reply to  KC Funk

was coming in to post the same thing. The level of negativity is depressing as are all the thumbs up for comments predicting and seemingly rooting for failure. Maybe there’s so much failure because people wish it true… I for one wish the eventual development team the best of success and hope there is a new stadium for our team to play in.

Evan MacKenzie
Evan MacKenzie
15 days ago

Best of luck to the design team.

John Sutphin
John Sutphin
15 days ago

IIRC, the wording originally suggested that if the stadium was still being built in April 2025 it qualifies as complaint.

Bruce Milam
Bruce Milam
11 days ago
Reply to  John Sutphin

“Complaint” or “compliant”? It’s interesting how two similar words can have such radically different meanings.

JORDAN TUCKER
JORDAN TUCKER
15 days ago

The “town clowns” AKA Richmond City Council just can’t get out of their own way. The Brave’s did not want to leave but after years of stonewalling by RCC said adios and we lost arguably the best triple A franchise in baseball. Now we are over 10 years into the double A team and the Council’s backs are against the wall.
Pull the plug on them MLB

Jim Jones
Jim Jones
14 days ago
Reply to  JORDAN TUCKER

The town clowns will be the part that slows this project down, they will fuss and fight and wait until “their” cup is full.

Craig Davis
Craig Davis
10 days ago
Reply to  JORDAN TUCKER

As a 40+ year Braves fan, why not ask Gwinnett how it feels about getting the AAA Braves when they left Richmond – they built the stadium the Braves wanted and have taken and are continuing to take a financial bath. The AJC has written about it extensively. I hatred to see them go but the Braves have a history of holding their minor league cities hostage then moving on if they don’t get what they want. The Braves did the same thing to AA Greenville (SC) and moved them to Mississippi when they couldn’t extract what they wanted.

JORDAN TUCKER
JORDAN TUCKER
8 days ago
Reply to  Craig Davis

I hear you, but the main issue with Gwinnett is their close proximity to the
A Braves. Unbelievably many show up at the wrong stadium for the game.

Kevin Randesi
Kevin Randesi
12 days ago

The part about “Costs and finances to be determined” is probably the most important aspect of this development – and it’s amazing that those figures haven’t been disclosed yet. If this project involves any funding, financing, risk, etc. to the City of Richmond taxpayers (which it probably will) it will be dead like the Navy Hill proposal. Especially if the politicians start trying to convince the constituents on how good this project is, how many jobs it will create, how the taxpayers won’t be at risk, vote for this and your taxes won’t go up, etc. – the usual lies.