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Trani: Keep baseball on the Boulevard, and add a 10-acre train station

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RICHMOND, Va. — The following is an opinion piece by Eugene P. Trani, president emeritus of Virginia Commonwealth University, on the future of the Boulevard. The piece first appeared in the Commentary Section of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and Mr. Trani granted permission for its reposting here on WTVR.com.

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Recently, I had an ah-ha moment. It was during a presentation to the Board of Directors of Virginians for High Speed Rail by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation’s DC to Richmond High Speed Rail Project Team, which noted that there was consideration of four potential “Richmond” stations for the long-term growth of rail in the commonwealth.

The first two were our current stations, Main Street Station in downtown Richmond and Staples Mill Station in Henrico County. And they have major assets, but also major problems, especially parking. The third and the fourth sites were called the Broad Street site and the Boulevard site.

Let’s concentrate on the Boulevard or Diamond site and how that could change Richmond in a profound way.

I have always been fascinated with the development opportunities at The Diamond. First, there is the name itself, which can refer to the baseball diamond, or to the most valuable gemstone known to mankind. The Pearl-Qatar is known world-wide as a major development project in the capital city of Doha. By 2018, it is expected to have 45,000 residents and will cost $15 billion and will be a major business, residential and entertainment district for the whole Gulf area. So the name, RVA’s Diamond, could be a great branding symbol for the district.

Second, there are the current assets in the entertainment and sports area. Its assets include the Science Museum of Virginia, the Children’s Museum of Richmond, both drawing people from all over Virginia, with the Science Museum located in the beautifully renovated historic Broad Street Station, — and the iconic movie theater, Bow Tie Cinema, located in a redeveloped train engineering manufacturing building. Combined, these three facilities attract hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.

In the sports area, the Diamond site has the Washington Redskins Practice Facility, Sports Backers Stadium, a premier soccer and track venue, and the historic baseball stadium dating back to 1985. And it also has the beginning of housing stock with the wonderful redevelopment of the Interbake Foods building into the Cookie Factory Lofts, an apartment complex popular with young professionals.

Third, there is the dramatic development taking place in Scott’s Addition, across the street from The Diamond. Businesses, residential dwellings, and many first-class restaurants have made Scott’s Addition one of the hottest development areas in all of RVA.

Finally, there is the baseball ballpark itself. I have always urged that baseball continue to be located there. In 2006, in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, I wrote that “the Braves — or any other professional baseball franchise — should stay right at The Diamond. It doesn’t matter whether it is a new or renovated stadium. The current location is perfect if one looks beyond the limits of a single baseball team and a single-use stadium.”

Another record-setting attendance this past year of 417,828 fans, first in the Flying Squirrels league, should not be ignored. The people from RVA love that site because it is so easy to get to and they will continue to come to all of its sports and entertainment venues.

And now the suggestion of a renovated baseball Diamond, built to the specifications of the Richmond Flying Squirrels, makes that a more realistic option. The recent release of the Save The Diamond Committee plans for the renovation of the ballpark and the 50 acres of city-owned land around it is a starting point for a complete rethink of a major development project for RVA.

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With a remodeled baseball park and Sports Backers Stadium as anchors at one end of the Diamond site, what could be the other anchor? How about a brand new train station that is the only RVA stop, with rapid transit to downtown Richmond, Henrico, Chesterfield, Hanover, and other counties?

Combined our two current stations served 407,058 passengers last year, an increase of 68 percent over the past decade. But, imagine if our region had a station with connectivity to business, education, and commerce that was also served by more than two trains a day.

Investing 10 acres to build a modern passenger rail station, along with a renovated ball park, can create a huge economic opportunity for RVA. No more tourists getting off in the middle of the suburbs with no idea how to get to their hotel downtown, and no more business leaders trying to book a train ticket from Main Street Station to Washington, only to get frustrated with their options and decide to drive.

A Boulevard station would serve as a grand entrance to our region. It would say to visitors, residents, and businesses that we are trying to attract, “Welcome to RVA, a place that knows how to live, work, and play.”

We only have to look 100 miles north to see the potential of a Boulevard station. In Washington, a private developer is working on a $1.5 billion development project centered over the air rights of Washington’s Union Station. Their 14-acre development will result in 3 million square feet encompassing 1.5 million square feet of office space, 1,300 residential units, 100,000 square feet of retail space, more than 500 hotel rooms, and parks and plazas. It is estimated to generate $8.5 billion in economic development for Washington.

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If the current Diamond site were expanded to include the Greyhound bus maintenance site and the ABC site, Richmond’s Diamond could comprise approximately 100 acres. Think of the development opportunities that are possible, and the type of economic development that they could generate for our region.

Much of the site development has already been considered by the group advocating an independent children’s hospital be built near The Diamond. Now that VCU Health is moving ahead with its plans to build a new pediatric inpatient tower on the MCV campus, why can’t we think BIG about The Diamond site?

Think of the retail, office, and housing opportunities that would occur at The Diamond. There could be significant parking, essential for both a train station and the ballpark, and the tax revenues that would flow to the city would be enormous.

The city planners who moved the railroad station to Broad Street in the early 20th century were certainly correct in their decision, and we just need to use that logic for its 21st century vision. Thousands of Richmonders would flock to such a location, including those who work in the D.C. metropolitan area and want to live close to a convenient and accessible RVA location to catch the train.

City Council began to seriously debate the development of The Diamond area at its last meeting. Those discussions should include the area from the Science Museum to the Arthur Ashe Athletic Center, and should include both the renovated baseball park and a new train station. The Diamond is not just a ballpark; rather, it is the most important planning development area in RVA. While it would take years to fully develop, it is an opportunity that should not be missed.

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