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Off the Boulevard

Why a new ballpark doesn’t help the city, and is better suited for the suburbs.

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Say what you want about The Diamond — a spindly, spiderlike and top-heavy structure — but it's impossible to pass the ballpark without being drawn to its eye-catching concrete forms. And on game days, the energy flow is contagious when the flaming red gates open onto the Boulevard sidewalk. Watching the multigenerational fans ascend the steep front steps in search of hot dogs, cold beer and maybe even a fly ball reminds us why baseball is our national pastime.

But chunks of concrete fell from the 12,134-seat stadium's upper reaches some years ago, and apparently the facility, which was built in 1985, is beyond repair. We're told it must go.

Late last month renderings were unveiled of a new $50 million facility proposed to be built on the interior of a city-owned, 67-acre site, part of which is occupied by the city's fleet maintenance facility. Designed by Populous, the plans promise no steep steps to navigate but add grassy earth berms beyond the outfield for picnicking. The architectural design calls for a red brick facade with Roman arches, an arcade and corner towers. Promoters describe the style as "Richmondesque."

Perhaps it doesn't matter. Neither Henrico nor Chesterfield counties has stepped up to the plate financially to help fund the new stadium. So maybe it's time to stop yammering about replacing The Diamond with another ballpark on the Boulevard. Or even within the city limits.

"They've been talking about a new ballpark since I moved back here 10 years ago from California," a frustrated Richmonder said recently, who'd spent 16 years on the West Coast. "They've talked about Manchester, Fulton Bottom, Shockoe Bottom and now The Diamond. Come on, I say screw it."

I agree, and here's why. During the decade of back-and-forth about regional cooperation and where to build a new ballpark, the reality is that the broader playing field — the landscape of the city and region — has changed dramatically.

The University of Richmond has vacated City Stadium for its own, on-campus football facility: This puts the future of the old stadium on Douglasdale Road in limbo. The drumbeat to replace the Richmond Coliseum with a new downtown arena is just beginning. Mega sports complexes in the suburbs are growing — and experiencing growing pains. And Virginia Commonwealth University is flexing its intercollegiate muscles in ways unimaginable a decade ago.

We need a broadly focused, regional sports summit, with all parties at the table, to plot a 25-year strategy.

But more immediately, here's the thing: Let's take The Diamond tract out of the equation. For more than half a century, since the first pitch was thrown at Parker Field in 1954, a ballpark at this in-town location has done absolutely nothing to stimulate economic development in the vicinity. That may have been OK back in the Eisenhower years, when the surrounding neighborhood housed mostly warehouses and light industries, but things have changed dramatically.

The tract bounded by Boulevard, Robin Hood Road, Hermitage and the train tracks no longer is an isolated no-man's land. Highly attractive and economically positive changes have taken hold on the circumference of The Diamond, leaving the mostly asphalt and gravel site an underused eyesore.

First, let's move the ballpark to a suburban location. That's been the history of ballparks here — moving ever outward. A ballpark once was located downtown, on Mayo Island, and later near Lombardy and Broad streets. In 1954 Parker Field opened at the current location of The Diamond. It's time to move again to a place where land is cheaper and closer to where the fan base lives. Now that would be show regional cooperation on the part of the city.

And why build a generic, "Richmondesque" stadium set far back from the Boulevard where it wouldn't be seen and would sit unused most of the year? Removing the ballpark from its current site would open up this sizable tract for mixed-use commercial and residential development.

Consider: The Boulevard north of Broad Street once was a service road marked with automotive dealerships, service stations and in-the-median parking. It's been re-landscaped — and the Bow Tie Movieland complex, with 17 screens, is a miracle. There are popular destination restaurants. The Science Museum and the Children's Museum are nearby. And expansions at the Virginia Historical Society and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts have upped the ante to the south. The Boulevard's commercial strip isn't perfect, but its irregularity is akin to the quirky charm of similar stretches in Los Angeles and West Hollywood.

Also, the Boulevard is the eastern border of Scott's Addition. This neighborhood is witnessing a rebirth with warehouses becoming condos, apartments and small businesses. Triangle Players, one of the area's leading theater companies, has a modest but handsome new theater there.

To the north of The Diamond, the Bellevue, Ginter Park and Laburnum neighborhoods are solidly residential. Two major retirement communities, Westminster Canterbury and Imperial Plaza, are just minutes away up Hermitage Road.

On the tract's eastern side, Hermitage Road is revving up with the adaptive reuse of historic warehouses and factories into the Todd Lofts and the Stove Works apartment building. The Fan and Museum districts, just to the south, are tight. And finally, interstates 64 and 95 serve this choice location.

But sadly, as the spoke of the wheel, and with all that's swirling around it, The Diamond tract is a soulless hole in the doughnut.

The city, which has few such well-situated tracts, should develop this area for residential as well as retail use. Not a retail center that would compete with Carytown, but a shopping destination that would be complementary. Perhaps a major grocer, a hardware and garden center, a Target and an H&M.

The architectural model would be urban in spirit to establish an overall sense of place for the Boulevard: Buildings would address the sidewalks. Parking would be in the center of the block.

The physical and architectural character of this site would allow for buildings to go up as high as 10 stories because the area's shielded visually from surrounding low-rise neighborhoods by train tracks and highway overpasses. The model could be Ballston in Fairfax where taller buildings embrace a Metro stop.

There's no longer any need for a ballpark on the Boulevard. It's only a drag in an area that could be much more architecturally and economically dynamic. We'd miss The Diamond, especially its energy on game day. But after a run of half a century, it's time this valuable tract of land played catch-up with all that's going on around it. S

Edwin Slipek is Style's senior contributing editor.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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