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Richmond unveils plans to demolish Arthur Ashe center in Diamond District redevelopment

The Arthur Ashe Jr. Athletic Center stand in front of The Diamond
The Arthur Ashe Jr. Athletic Center in Richmond formerly hosted athletic and other student events for Richmond Public Schools. The building, which is requires more than $1 million in repairs, is set to be demolished by the city. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Richmond city officials unveiled their vision for a new “Diamond District” near Scott's Addition last week. Those plans, in addition to redeveloping a large parcel of public land, included a proposal to demolish the Arthur Ashe Jr. Athletic Center.

Named after Richmond-born tennis star Arthur Ashe Jr., the 6,000-seat athletic center opened in 1982. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the building is owned by the city but managed by the school board. Richmond’s director of the Department of Economic Development, Leonard Sledge, said the center is obsolete because the school board has failed to maintain it.

“The Arthur Ashe center is functionally obsolete as a facility,” Sledge said. “My understanding is that there are some capital maintenance that has been deferred, that has not been done by Richmond Public Schools.”

When this plan was unveiled at a public meeting last week, some members of the community objected to the center being demolished. Clarence Kenny is a Richmond resident who works with children in the city. He also blamed the school district for letting its condition decline.

“It’s wholly obsolete because they don't do the maintenance on it on a yearly basis. In fact, they let it become obsolete,” Kenny said. “That facility was built for the students of Richmond Public Schools.”

According to Sarah Abubaker, a spokesperson for Richmond Public Schools, the center would require a “substantial investment” in order to make the building usable.

“The major repairs include a new roof and new HVAC, which is well over $1 million just for the HVAC replacement,” Abubaker said. “In its heyday, the AA center was used for things like academic competitions, an all-RPS rally, cheer competitions, etc. Now it is not used for those things because of the HVAC issues.”

Since the pandemic began, Abubaker said the center hasn’t been used at all to host Richmond student activities.

“Now it is mostly used as storage for RPS and is rented out by outside organizations to supplement its overhead costs,” Abubaker said.

The city has no plans in place to replace the center with another athletic facility for children in Richmond, according to Sledge.

“There isn't a concrete solution yet,” Sledge said. “There needs to be opportunities for replacement uses and programming that the Arthur Ashe Athletic Center had.”

Without a replacement facility, Kenny said low-income families will be disproportionately affected when events like the ones previously held at the center resume because they won’t have the funds to travel out of town to attend.

“That eliminates the parents and family from ever being able to support [their kids],” Kenny said. “We're dealing with poor, low-income people, and there needs to be a consideration for the activities that are offered.”

Oludare Ogunde, another Richmond resident at the public meeting, said changes like the demolition of the center are a sign of positive growth in the community.

“I think in Richmond we should not be afraid to have a change. We should never be afraid to go forward,” Ogunde said.

The demolition of the center is part of the city’s larger plan to redevelop 67 acres of public land around The Diamond baseball stadium near Scott’s Addition. Their vision is to redevelop this area into a mixed-use, mixed-income “entertainment destination” featuring a brand new public park, baseball stadium, space for storefronts, hotels and new housing.

The city began the process of redeveloping this area in December of 2020 when city council approved the Richmond 300 Plan, which included a proposal to reimagine the neighborhood. City council rezoned the area in July of last year to accommodate these plans, and they formally sought interested developers five months later. Fifteen companies responded to the Request for Interest and since then, city officials narrowed down their choices to three companies: Richmond Community Development Partners, RVA Diamond Partners and Vision300 Partners, LLC.

These companies have yet to present specific, in-depth plans to the city about how they envision redeveloping the area, though they have each submitted a one-page summary with sketches of their designs to the city.

At the core of these plans is building a completely new baseball stadium to replace The Diamond. According to Maritza Pechin, deputy director of the Department of Planning and Development, the city needs to build a new facility in order to comply with new regulations in minor league baseball.

“Minor league parks have to meet these standards by opening day 2025,” Pechin said. “Like the amount of square feet that you need for the guest locker room and the visiting team and the home team, providing space for female staff. Because as baseball has changed, now there's more female members.”

The city does not yet have an estimate on the number of rental and for-sale housing units that will be included in plans for the development. But Pechin said their goal is to reserve at least 20% for affordable housing.

Richmond residents who make between 30% and 60% of the city’s area median income will qualify for affordable housing in this development, according to Director of Economic Development Sharon Ebert. She said the city’s AMI for a family of four this year is approximately $90,000. That means that families of this size who make less than $27,000 a year will not be able to afford to live in this development.

This project is happening in tandem with the city’s plans to demolish its six largest public housing neighborhoods and replace them with “mixed-income” housing. The demolition of Creighton Court in the East End, which used to provide housing for over 500 people, has already begun. Due to this mass displacement, Kenny said the city’s offer to reserve 20% for affordable housing is inadequate.

“I'm getting tired, in the city of Richmond, of even talking about affordable housing. They don't do that,” Kenny said.

To meet their goal, Pechin said the city is working with the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority to provide an additional 100 project-based vouchers to public housing residents displaced by the redevelopment of their neighborhoods who are interested in living in the Diamond District.

“This location right next to the highway, right next to these growing and strong neighborhoods, is a really good location for some more housing. [And] we want to make sure it’s mixed-income” Pechin said.

However, the U.S. Office of Policy Development and Research reported in 2013  that “low-income residents who formerly lived in public housing have realized little or no economic or educational benefit from living in a new mixed-income setting.” Their research also found that low-income residents overall don’t tend to benefit from the job opportunities in those areas.

How much it will cost the city to redevelop the Diamond District is still unknown, but the three companies competing for the project will present their official offers to the city on June 28. Once those offers are received, Pechin said they anticipate announcing a preferred candidate to city council next month.

At least 7 out of 9 city council members will need to approve the plans before redevelopment can move forward. The city is also requesting that members of the public get involved in the planning process for the Diamond District by filling out a questionnaire about what changes they want to see.