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.
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.”
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 Partners – were 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.
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.
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.
“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 teamwork 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.