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Stadium construction could commence in eight months

The University of Richmond's plans to "move Spider football home" are still being developed as the university awaits approval of a special-use permit from the City of Richmond, but some neighbors are still not sure they're on board with the plans.

The university hosted a community meeting about the stadium on April 1 to address the concerns of those that might be affected by the stadium at any point, from temporary construction concerns to long-term concerns about traffic and noise on game days. The university expects to receive approval by June, followed by about six months of additional planning and design work before actual construction to transform First Market Stadium would begin, according to John McCulla, the university's director of community relations.

The construction itself would take approximately 18 months to complete, he said, allowing the stadium to be ready to host home football games starting during the 2010 season. Richmond football teams have played at the University of Richmond Stadium for the past 80 years, McCulla said, and Richmond has had a very positive relationship with the surrounding neighborhoods. The stadium was called City Stadium until 1983.

The SUP would grant permission to transform all aspects of the current stadium, including the sound and lighting systems, signage and traffic and expand the 2,500-seat stadium into one that could accommodate 8,700 people, said Jim Miller, director of athletics. Though the new stadium would include more than triple the number of seats in First Market Stadium, which has been on-campus since 1930, the "footprint" of the new stadium would be the same as the current one. Also, the permit would be permanent, he added, preventing the university from increasing the number of seats in the future without applying for another SUP.

The planned stadium would have 6,200 seats along the length of the field, and the end zone facing the Robins Center would have 1,900 temporary seats that would only be up between late August and December for football season, Miller said. He said the opposing end zone closer to Robins Center would remain open.

The people who began planning the project five years ago knew what they were doing, President Edward Ayers said. In his meetings with more than 4,000 alumni, faculty, staff and students, he saw the stadium as something the university wanted and needed and something that would tie everyone together.

"We are here to ensure that we are worthy stewards of the trust [donors] have placed in us," Ayers said. "That means not only seeing this through but also doing so in a way that our neighbors understand that we're doing the very best that we can to avoid any conflict this may have for you, any inconvenience, and yet still be a gift to the whole West End of the city of Richmond."

Miller said the stadium was designed backward in a sense. Rather than designing a stadium around accommodating a fixed number of people, he said the university had looked at the space and worked with the architects to design an appropriately sized stadium for the campus, then figured out how many it would seat. The original query from people was "Why not bigger?" he said.

But some members of the community were still not sold on the new stadium, citing concerns about sound, lighting and parking in addition to those about traffic density and patterns. Miller, who said he lived in the house closest to First Market Stadium, assured attendees that the new stadium would use the best lighting and sound technology available. This would mean the stadium would have lights that would be designed to shine more light on the field while minimizing the amount of light that escaped into the community.

The stadium would also include numerous speakers that could be turned on and off as needed. The sound system would also have sensors to adjust the sound to prevent noise pollution.

The university already has 35 years of experience dealing with traffic concerns for basketball games at the Robins Center, which holds just over 9,000 spectators, according to McCulla. The traffic for football games is very different from that of basketball games, he said.

The national average of people per car for football games versus basketball games is about 3-to-1, McCulla said, and people usually arrive to basketball games about 30 minutes before game time. Football is different, he said, because attendees usually arrive two or three hours before the game to enjoy tailgating together, and usually stay after the game to socialize as well. This would help alleviate some of the traffic concerns because there would not be a rush of cars like the one associated with basketball games, he said.

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Because tailgating was an integral part of football games, Miller said, the university has plans to hold tailgating throughout campus rather than just near the stadium.

"We want to drive tailgating into the middle of campus, where we have some wonderful opportunities," he said. "We have a parking design that has permit parking to put people in certain areas to make sure we can direct them into the campus, not just from the north or from the south, but from different areas to make sure the ingress and egress of parking is spread as evenly around campus."

Some neighborhood residents were especially concerned about traffic related to construction and requested that the university control the vendors it used during the project.

One man at the meeting said a vendor's truck had driven through his yard during recent construction and had destroyed a large portion of his shrubbery. A woman, who said she lived on College Road, was frustrated with trucks that sped down the road on their way to the university to make deliveries. Another man who lived on Three Chopt Road said that although there were truck restrictions on the road, vendors coming to the university had not always obeyed the ordinance.

"We are very conscious of managing truck access and ensuring that it is safe," McCulla said. "We really do try to use the police force well, and we coordinate quite well with Henrico [County]. We are managing [trucks] so that it is something that does not become a safety concern, nor something that is disruptive."

He said the best way to work with these concerned community members was to communicate with them as to when they could expect construction traffic.

The university would also work to stage deliveries in an effort to decrease the impact on traffic, he said, and would work to make vendors respect the truck restrictions on local streets. He said neighbors would not have to worry about trucks carrying debris from the disassembled stadium out onto the local roads, because all materials would be used as infill on campus.

McCulla said they want the neighbors' approval that this was something that would be good not only for the university, but also was something that would be welcome to them and something they would enjoy as well.

"We very much want it to be a community-supported project," he said. A number of pieces have also had to fall into place to put the stadium plans into motion, McCulla said, and money had been one of the key factors.

The $25 million price tag has been privately financed by more than 500 donors with gifts of all sizes, he said, with only $5 million coming from the university. Having a new president who was on board with the project and having shared interest between the student governments have both been integral to the process, McCulla said. Student governments passed resolutions on the matter and have continued to support the project. The alumni voice had probably been the strongest, he said.

Michael London, the new head football coach who graduated from Richmond in 1983, said he looked forward to the new stadium being a venue where alumni could come back and where everyone could enjoy the atmosphere on campus. This sentiment seemed to be shared by all those involved in the project. He also said he thought the on-campus stadium could become a "12th man" for the football team.

The university will host another community meeting at 7 p.m. April 29 in the Brown-Alley Room.

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