Not known for throngs of sports fans, Richmond has probably spent more time over the past decades discussing the fate of its ballpark than it has the performance of its local team: the Flying Squirrels. Despite the Squirrels enjoying an unusually successful season in 2022, the statement holds true this year as well as the City Council just selected a development team for a $2.4 billion reimagining of the Diamond District — today a desolate collection of parking lots that could begin transforming into a dense, walkable urban neighborhood as soon as this coming spring.
Housing for whomst?
The yearlong process to choose a development team may have felt long to locals; however, previous attempts to sell off the site in 2007 and 2016 floundered before they finished. This time around a 2025 deadline set by Minor League Baseball to offer the Squirrels a new stadium or risk the team’s relocation to another city lit a fire under Richmond officials’ efforts at redevelopment.
By the end of the site’s fourth and final phase of redevelopment over 3,000 new housing units will have been built across the Diamond District’s 67 acres. Should all go according to plan, Phase I — the portion of the project over which current city officials will have the most control — will bring online the first 1,000 units of housing.
90 two over two condos will be available for purchase with 18 of those units designated affordable and set aside for people earning 60-70% of the area’s average median income. To assist those 18 households with down payments, closing costs, and other fees, the development team, RVA Diamond Partners, will set aside $1 million.
20% of the 910 rental units will be set aside for Richmond residents earning 30-60% AMI. The number of apartments available to people with project-based vouchers has yet to be determined, a key question as the city actively demolishes one of its six remaining public housing courts.
In addition to all of the housing in Phase I, by the start of 2027 the Diamond District should also boast a 180 room hotel, all the necessary roads and utilities, and four acres of new park space divided between the planned crescent park connecting the new neighborhood to the Science Museum and a pocket park between residential buildings.
As the area is zoned Transit Oriented Development-1, only one parking space per unit will be required for all the new housing. The Diamond District will, however, host 1,700 structured parking spots per the city’s request.
“The site will have a shared parking strategy so that office users share their parking with baseball stadium visitors so we aren’t building a lot of parking for one single use,” explained Maritza Pechin, Richmond’s deputy director for the Office of Equitable Development. “The parking structures will be fully financed by the private sector because we didn’t want any part of building, owning, or managing parking structures.”
A car-lite community
Currently the area around the baseball stadium proves treacherous to navigate outside of a car. Solely on the bridge over the railroad tracks to Scott’s Addition the speed limit actually increases from 25 mph to 35 mph — a status quo as dangerous as it is puzzling. Although the Department of Public Works has the final say on all speed limits in the city, Pechin promises to use a recently received RAISE Grant from the US Department of Transportation “to ensure a much better pedestrian and biking experience across the Arthur Ashe Bridge.”
The aim for the area is to provide safe and seamless walking and biking connections between the Diamond District and all its surrounding neighborhoods and destinations.
“We want to make sure people are moving between Scott’s Addition and the Diamond District easily without a car so they can spend money in both areas,” added Pechin. “That means making the interior of the Diamond District and everything that feeds into it a really safe area with better connections. The biggest challenge will be how do we work with VDOT to redesign those off ramps [from I-95 and I-64 that feed car traffic onto the Boulevard]. There is no reason why anyone who lives close to the Diamond is driving to baseball games.”
Today the closest frequent transit route to the new neighborhood is a 15-20 minute walk away at the Scott’s Addition or Science Museum Pulse stations. The Greater Richmond Transit Company’s routes 14 and 20 both serve the site, but neither bus comes more than once a half hour.
Those unfortunate frequencies could increase with the coming density, hinted Pechin: “There is not enough population along the 20 right now to support the 15 minute frequency envisioned [in the 2018 Transit Development Plan]. The goal is for the 20 to be a much more frequent bus and to bring it through this project.”
The developer is particularly partial to microtransit solutions; however, residents and visitors alike won’t feel safe scooting or biking in and out of the area until a network of protected paths or bike lanes have been established. Currently the area has little more than a few sharrows on Hermitage Road.
To incentivize the parts of the new neighborhood not included in the deal on the other side of the Boulevard and bounded by the train tracks, Westwood Avenue, and I-95/64 to become more walkable, livable spaces, the city rezoned the western half of the area to B-7. This residential and light manufacturing designation allows up to seven stories of housing as well as breweries and makers spaces to coexist as they do currently in Manchester.
Projects along the Boulevard immediately across from the Diamond District approved before the rezoning include a new gas station, a car wash, and three drive throughs side by side. Pechin promises such proposals won’t be approved under the new zoning.
All four phases of the Diamond District likely won’t be completed before 2035 depending on the market; however, the high number of developers interested in taking on the redevelopment is a good sign, according to Pechin: “The reason Richmond got so many submissions for this site is people realize this is a growing city; people want to be here long-term, and we’re an increasingly desirable place to live.”
Top image: Richmond’s Diamond is the site of a new $2.4 billion dollar redevelopment deal. (Wyatt Gordon)