Make the Richmond Coliseum the Richmond Colosseum

One of the many fun things about practicing commercial real estate law is the real estate part. Growing up, I often traveled around Virginia with my parents on weekends exploring cool old buildings, many of them abandoned. Over the years since, I’ve practiced law in many of the old courthouses we had visited. And I’ve worked on development deals involving historic properties being converted to modern uses. A recent deal was in southside Virginia, where my colleagues and I represented the lender in the conversion of a former women’s college to a hotel. The college’s most famous alumna was the actress Bea Arthur, of Maude and The Golden Girls fame. I get great pleasure from trying to help preserve a bit of the past as we prepare for the future.

Which brings us to the Richmond Coliseum. To me, that’s a cool building. I know my bias is fueled by my age and experiences there. It does not seem like nearly 50 years have passed since I first laid eyes on Julius “Dr. J” Irving. He was number 32 for the Virginia Squires, of the fledging American Basketball Association, who called the Coliseum a home. Dr. J was one of many players, including on visiting teams, who came through the building and ended up in the basketball hall of fame.

We knew from day one that this was the big time. Not just because of the famous and to-be-famous names in the Coliseum, but because of the building itself. It was ultra-modern, magnificent. Richmond nor few other places had seen anything like it. You walked into the corridor of the round structure from one of dozens of doors. From there, you entered the arena proper. From top to bottom, it was stunning. Many stories above was the domed, wire-netted ceiling. Looking down, you saw the basketball court, which was below street level. From there, rows and rows of seating for nearly 14,000 spectators arose at a seemingly perilous angle. The lower level of the Coliseum is like a bowl—think the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.

Now the City of Richmond is planning to demolish the Coliseum, leaving open space for outdoor events, and turning the space underneath into a parking garage. If I had a vote, I would not use it to tear down the building. I would restore the Coliseum to all its former glory. But I don’t have a vote, and destruction seems to be a fait accompli. So my focus as a lover of real estate who happens to practice commercial real estate law, is what’s next for the site.

Besides the weekend trips I took with my parents, we traveled abroad a few times. The amphitheaters in Greece—like the Roman ones—made a huge, early impression on me. So it has occurred to me that if the City wants an outdoor gathering place at the site of the former Richmond Coliseum, why not preserve a bit of the building at the same time? At the least, leave the lower level of seating. Voila: instant concrete amphitheater! And if you preserve at least part of the façade, you will have something like a modern version of a more famous structure: The Colosseum in Rome.

I hope the City of Richmond will explore options like these for the Coliseum site, and (with apologies to Joni Mitchell) not just pave paradise and put up a parking garage.

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