A city divided from top to Bottom

Photo by Audry Dubon.

Matt Leonard
Online News Editor

For months, the possibility of a new baseball park in Shockoe Bottom has caused a rift through river city.

Controversy surrounding the city building a ballpark in Shockoe Bottom began in 2012 with an article in the Richmond Times Dispatch entitled “Time to act: Build a ballpark downtown.” Just two weeks later opponents of the plan responded: “Bottom line: no Shockoe stadium.”

“Those were the opening shots,” said Phil Wilayto, the editor-in-chief at the Virginia Defender.

Proponents of the plan say it will bring in businesses and tourists and be an economic boost to the city. Opponents say a mayor in cahoots with big business is bullying the project through legislature and, if built, the stadium project–entitled Revitalize RVA–will bury the rich history of enslaved Africans who were sold in Shockoe Bottom.

Richmond mayor Dwight C. Jones has worked hard to get the project approved, but he cannot push it through without approval from city council. Before the May 24 city council meeting, five of nine council members said they planned to vote against the revitalization proposal. The mayor pulled his plan before a vote could be made.

 “It’s not the victory,” Wilayto said. “If they change one vote the mayor’s won again.”

Jones said after taking the proposal off the table he is going to work out some details in an attempt to sway the council members.

 “If they introduce the plan for a vote, we’ll know they already have the votes,” Wilayto said.

According to the mayor’s plan, the Economic Development Agency (EDA) of Richmond will issue bonds to the city to pay for the project. These will be cover $69,070,000 in total development costs and $51,800,000 in project costs.

 Wilayto said it will take the city 30 years to pay back these bonds. In other words, all taxes from the proposed hotel, supermarket and luxury apartments will go towards repaying the EDA. The city and its citizens wouldn’t see any increase in tax flow in the meantime.

Jones provided an opposing view in a newsletter that came out last month and has been his only statement on the subject since pulling the plan. He said the plan will generate $10 million a year in new revenue.

“Economic development is the primary goal of this plan,” Jones said. “It generates additional tax revenues that can help our schools, our infrastructure and generally improve the quality of life for all of Richmond’s residents.”

Those who oppose the stadium project recently partnered with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, described as an organization that works to save historic places. They have placed Shockoe Bottom on their list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places for 2014.

 “Shockoe Bottom represents a very important part of American history, and the stories associated with that place, and that place, have literally almost been erased,” said Rob Nieweg, field director and attorney with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

 Nieweg’s concern is contingent upon the importance of the history of the slave trade that formerly thrived in Virginia and is grounded in the Bottom.

“Trading in slaves became Virginia’s most lucrative business starting in the 1850s,” said Wilayto. “That continued through the Civil War.”

Lumpkin’s jail, a large unmarked slavery burial ground and other historical sites with ties to slavery are all located in Shockoe Bottom. The evidence to back Nieweg’s claims lay with one of the only archaeological digs in the Bottom.

 The James River Institute for Archaeology, Inc. administered a preliminary archaeological investigation of the Lumpkin’s jail site in 2006.

A total of 863 artifacts ranging from ceramics, toys and leather were collected from the area.

 The conclusion of the investigation recommend adding the site to the National Register of Historic Places.

Slaves were brought to Richmond on boat, marched down the Manchester Slave Trail and once in the Bottom they were either auctioned off or jailed.

 Wilayto stated in one of his many of his articles on the subject that an estimated 300,000 to 350,000 enslaved people passed through auction houses in Shockoe Bottom in the three decades prior to the Civil War.

“There needs to be a comprehensive archaeological survey, meaning more excavation. Deciding the best way to commemorate what happened needs to be a public conversation,” he said.

Both Nieweg and Wilayto have reached out to the city of Richmond for such conversation, but both have been unable to find anyone willing to engage.

“The kind of responsible archeological and historic preservation review that we’re calling for requires meaningful public involvement,” Nieweg said. “That kind of review and consultation isn’t possible on the schedule the city is driving forward.”

The Revitalize RVA plans call for the doors to open on the stadium by April 2016.

The mayor’s plan does include plans for the memorialization of the area. The funding is money that has already been pledged by city council and state legislature, which will be there regardless of the plans approval.

Opponents are quick to note they’re not against development in the Bottom. They say they are against “large-scale development.”

“Many agree this is a site of conscience that needs to be treated with great care,” Nieweg said. “It’s not the fact that it’s a baseball stadium, it is that it’s a large-scale redevelopment that has been cited without first determining what is there historically.”

 Multiple alternatives have been proposed by the opposition. One of which is their plan entitled the “Vision Plan.” This plan allows for the mayor to build the grocery store, hotel and residential housing in the original plan.

Wilayto says that developers will not build the residential housing without the ballpark, though, because they can charge more per unit if the stadium is there. 

The public will have to wait and see if any alternatives are taken into account when the mayor reintroduces his plan.

 The Flying Squirrels, a minor league baseball team, will occupy the new ballpark; VCU’s baseball team will also be using it.  The team has said they aren’t involved in the political process, but support the mayor.

 “We want a new stadium and we support the mayor’s effort to get us a new stadium. If the new stadium is going to be in Shockoe bottom that’d be great,” said Louis DeBella, the president of the Flying Squirrels.

Their current venue is located on the north side of Richmond on Belvidere. DeBella says the stadium is falling apart and too far damaged for renovations, and they have already been promised a new location.

Neither Venture Richmond nor the mayor’s office responded to request for comment.

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