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Off the Grid

What a Shockoe ballpark would do to 270 years of city planning, and more recent preservation efforts.

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"Our plan respects the city street grid.” Developers of a proposed 8,500-seat baseball diamond in Shockoe Bottom repeated that claim with straight faces at least four times during a spirited public debate held in mid-May at the Richmond Times-Dispatch headquarters. Did Highwood Properties really think that uttering the untruth enough would make Richmonders overlook the fact that their scheme calls for destroying a sizable chunk of the city's original street system?

In 1737 landowner William Byrd II and surveyor William Mayo established the then-fledging town's urban grid system east of Shockoe Creek and immediately north of the market to take advantage of the navigational and commercial advantage of each. Residents of various ethnicities, and the buildings they inhabited, have come and gone, but the original streets (which at some point long ago were paved in cobblestone) have remained intact to serve pedestrian and vehicular traffic for 272 years. Though the creek now flows underground, the 17th Street Farmers' Market still offers local produce.

The Highwoods Properties plan would rip out entire blocks of East Grace and North 17th streets to accommodate a ball field and surrounding commercial structures. According to architectural renderings, first base would be situated in the middle of 17th Street; third base would be on the 1700 block of East Grace.

Further scars on the historic city fabric would be inflicted with the demolition of a number of old and distinctive buildings — including the former Loving's Produce warehouse — that contribute to the character and commercial viability of our oldest city sector.

It is therefore encouraging that another developer, Opening Day Partners, has broadened the conversation recently by presenting another plan. It calls for rethinking and redeveloping The Diamond on the Boulevard and the area around it. This plan presents few, if any, drawbacks and builds on a long tradition of minor league baseball at that location. More thoughts on that project will come at another time.

It's difficult to imagine from an environmental, historic, aesthetic, preservation, circulation or architectural standpoint a worse place for a sprawling sports facility than Shockoe Bottom.

Environmentally? It's situated at about the lowest point of the city's dramatically hilly topography. It would be muggy on summer nights sitting in the stands, especially with air trapped and breezes blocked by the surrounding ring of proposed high-rise and midrise buildings. And it can get awfully stinky in the low-lying Bottom when the sewers back up. Adding to the unpleasantness would be unrelenting vehicular traffic from Interstate 95 spewing fumes into the area. Oh, did we mention? The area floods.

Historically? This is our city's oldest sector. The original grid should be respected and preserved. And the recent and ongoing discovery and interpretation of sites critical to our city's slave history only add to the importance of protecting this delicate part of town.

Aesthetically? This besieged part of town already has been blitzed with huge 20th-century projects: Main Street Station and the interstate. But these slice through the valley. A ballpark would be a huge crater in the grid.

“But you wouldn't see it,” the developers would respond of the ballpark. Of course not: It would be surrounded by over-scaled buildings designed in some ersatz traditional style. They would replace authentic historic buildings that would be demolished.

Preservation? Not another shred of historic fabric should be lost here, a district in which surface parking lots already deface too much of the cityscape. No one should dare argue that even the most humble structure here is not of worth its weight in adaptive reuse possibilities. The past decades have produced nothing short of a miracle in Richmond where generous preservation tax credits have sparked the transformation of virtually every old (and sometimes not-so-old) building into housing, offices, retail, hotels or restaurants.

Circulation? The idea of using existing and neighboring parking facilities to accommodate baseball fans is a good one. Attendees could park a few blocks away and walk down to the Bottom. But additional vehicular traffic is something else. In reality, there are only two main arteries connecting the East End with downtown: Broad and Main streets — a combined eight traffic lanes, at most. Factor in the on- and off-ramps of Interstate 95 and there can be backups (I know, I lived in Church Hill on East Broad Street for 12 years). Getting through the Bottom in either direction can be difficult.

Architecturally? The consistent grid pattern is the organizing principle here. For hundreds of years, buildings of a certain size have been placed on this grid. It is respect for the grid that gives a city its human scale and makes it viable for habitation. Shockoe Bottom has become increasingly residential in recent years with old stores, factories and in-fill structures becoming apartments and townhouses. The mostly empty lots that Highwood eyes for development could be developed by the city into parkland. The perimeter of the old blocks could be planted in shade trees, the centers of the blocks converted to grass, and the brick sidewalks and cobblestone streets repaired. These open spaces would become needed passive green spaces for the broad range of residents who live nearby — students at the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center; residents of Mosby, Fairfield and Creighton courts housing projects on Jefferson Hill; the urban gentry atop Church Hill; and those who are gentrifying Union Hill, the Bottom and Tobacco Row.

Baseball should remain at The Diamond. A kinder, gentler future should be envisioned for these blocks of the oldest, most environmentally fragile and historically poignant part of downtown. S

Style Weekly architecture critic and senior contributing editor Edwin Slipek Jr. teaches courses in architectural history at Virginia Commonwealth University and courses in architecture and Richmond history at the Maggie L. Walker Governor's School for Government and International Studies.

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