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Bunting the Bottom

Former mayoral candidate Lawrence Williams revives his vision for Shockoe Bottom — this time with football, not baseball.

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Small ball has come back to Major League Baseball, the experts say. Now that the steroid-fed fence hitters have cleared off the bench, those remaining mortal players are bunting and skidding around the infield. Richmond's stadium saga underwent similar shrinkage last month when developers retired their pumped-up $363 million proposal in Shockoe Bottom.

Now a more modest value has been placed on the ballpark conversation: $125,000.

That's how much the city has in this year's budget to study Shockoe Bottom's ability to accommodate a baseball stadium, slave museum and a transfer station for buses and trains. The study is tentatively scheduled to begin in the fall, but Lawrence Williams already has a plan. The architect, one of the five candidates for mayor last fall, has a pitch that suggests he's become a little savvier in his public presentation since his wandering, if inspired, arguments during last fall's mayoral debates.

Some of the ideas he floated during the campaign sounded a little off the wall at the time, but recent events shed a different light on Williams' proposal.

Williams envisions a four-square-block complex in the Bottom bounded by Main Street Station and 18th streets, running from the end of the 17th Street Farmers' Market north to Broad. It would be a smaller-scale park on the “same footprint as the Coliseum in Rome,” Williams says. Unlike the Highwoods proposal, he's shifted the orientation of the baseball stadium and added removable bleachers behind the outfield. This would accommodate an overlapping regulation football and soccer field, and, who knows, maybe a seasonal ice rink, in the same facility allowing for year round use, he says.

“Baseball does not necessarily agree with the heritage of the area,” Williams says, “but high-school football does.” A cornerstone of his campaign was restoring economic vitality to the crescent of Northside and East End neighborhoods he recalls as vibrant during his youth in the 1960s, when high-school football games were community events. Public housing and highway building projects, and later drugs and violence, eroded the area's once-solidly middle-class social networks. He says his plan “gives an economic push to eastern Richmond where it's needed.”

Ideally, the park would be ringed with commercial property and the entrances to the park would preserve the existing street grid. Building the park at grade would help solve some of the drainage problems in Shockoe Valley, he says.

Williams envisions building costs coming from the city's capital budget or subsidized in part by Virginia Commonwealth University, an idea that still may be too dreamy.

Another idea, perhaps still ahead of its time, is a valley park running from Battery Park past Hospital Street almost to Main Street Station with two retention lakes. “Byrd Park in the Bottom,” he calls it — a drainage solution that would add views and thereby value to those distressed hilltop neighborhoods from his childhood.

Directly across from the park on 17th and Broad streets, Williams sees “Doug's facility” — the Slavery Museum that former-Mayor L. Douglas Wilder has unsuccessfully tried to establish in Fredericksburg. Putting the museum adjacent to the multiuse sports facility would give the area “a colonial scale” and “campus style.”

“This is a place where all the citizens of the area can meet,” he says, in practiced deference to the commercial coalition he'll need to win people over, “and then go to a restaurant.” S

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