Downtown Roanoke. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)
ROANOKE— A rapidly growing neighborhood that’s sprung up in downtown Roanoke has reversed decades of population loss and revitalized previously vacant buildings.
The influx of new residents, however, have complicated policy decisions in a district that’s traditionally been home to citywide and regional public services. And as to the question of where to locate Roanoke’s Valley Metro bus service, many residents responded in a way that’s far older than the neighborhood itself: “Not in my backyard.”
In January, the city council approved two land transfers that would move the city’s Valley Metro bus transfer station from its current spot in the Market district a few blocks west to what is now a parking lot.
More than 150 people jammed into council chambers, many holding signs suggesting the bus station is a crime magnet, and more than two dozen spoke in opposition to the project.
Fifteen years ago, the area on west Salem Avenue planned for the new bus station was an industrial district replete with auto shops, warehouses and a couple of bars. In the late 2000s, however, developers began redeveloping with historic tax credits, and today the district includes restaurants, a craft brewery and dozens of condominiums and apartment units.
The debate over the bus station got heated, with a couple of council members taking umbrage at speakers who suggested the bus station would bring crime, including one who referred to “that element.” Councilman Bill Bestpitch told The Roanoke Times a couple of days later that opponents of the bus station “were using lot of code words.”
Compare this to 2007, when the council was trying to find a site for a new Social Security Administration building. After a proposed site on the edge of the historic Gainsboro neighborhood was opposed by residents and ultimately rejected by federal officials, the council chose to build it next to its main branch library and premier city park in the heart of downtown. Construction at the new site received little pushback, in large part because there was no neighborhood constituency.
If the same project were proposed today, it would be developed within a growing neighborhood surrounded by hundreds of existing and planned housing units.
“We’ve invested a lot in downtown,” said Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea. “We talk about downtown vibrancy, but it started to dawn on us that as we open downtown up and make it a more vibrant place, we’re affecting lives. That’s an urban neighborhood. We’ve got to look at this in a different way than in the past.”
Roanoke’s downtown historically was home to retail and offices. The railroad and Interstate 581 marked boundaries to its north and east, with the west fading to an industrial district and the south to the Old Southwest neighborhood. Suburbanization and the rise of shopping malls left many of downtown’s core buildings partially or entirely vacant.
The city redeveloped a former Norfolk Southern building into apartments around the turn of the millennium, which several years later spurred a redevelopment boom by the private sector. Beginning in 2006, extending through the Great Recession, and continuing to the present day, developers used syndicated state and federal historic tax credits to transform an array of commercial and industrial buildings into rental apartments. More conventional office buildings and warehouses went first, but then developers started converting former auto dealerships and even an old YMCA building — complete with locker rooms and a pool— into freshly renovated apartments.
Bill Chapman, who had seen redevelopment play out in his hometown of Richmond, has developed more than 300 units in downtown Roanoke, many of which are located on west Salem Avenue. He started planning in 2006 but initially had a difficult time, partly because obtaining an appraisal was difficult because there were no comparable units at the time, but also because of the area’s history — mutated and calcified into stereotype — as a home to drug dealers, prostitutes and, in the restaurants and clubs along the street, Roanoke’s LGBTQ and punk communities.
“I couldn’t believe how many people told me, ‘I can’t believe you’re doing this. Nobody’s going to want to buy a condo on Salem Avenue. Don’t you know what was here 20 years ago?’” Chapman said.
That local bias allowed Chapman, who had seen a similar dynamic play out on Richmond’s Tobacco Row, and other developers to reinvent west Salem Avenue into a hip neighborhood just a few blocks west of downtown’s Market District.
“That neighborhood is very unique,” said Faisal Khan, another developer with a stake in the district. “They have more of a sense of community than the more classic downtown. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because they’re smaller. Maybe it’s because that area of downtown historically was the tougher section to redevelop because it was really the last area on the fringes of downtown. I don’t know if they came into it with a chip on their shoulder and that fostered a sense of community or if it’s the fact they’re smaller to begin with.”
As developers reinvented buildings throughout all parts of downtown Roanoke, millennials responded, and downtown’s population grew from fewer than 50 people in 2000 to about 2,500 now, according to Downtown Roanoke Inc. These new residents are mostly young professionals, with a few empty nesters sprinkled in. Their arrival has reversed decades of population loss in Roanoke.
A 2018 study by the UVA Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service estimated Roanoke city’s population at 100,033, an increase of 3.1 percent since 2010 and the first time it has exceeded 100,000 since 1980. Should the growth continue — and low vacancy rates seem to indicate there’s still demand for new apartments — Roanoke stands a fair chance of reaching its highest population ever. The city isn’t growing at nearly the rates of localities in Northern Virginia, but as a gateway to Appalachia, much of which is losing population, it’s doing well.
As the neighborhood has blossomed, however, the growing numbers of residents have generated new needs and challenges that range from parking to dog poop. (These types of tensions aren’t unique to Roanoke, of course. A new report points to rapid gentrification in Richmond and Virginia Beach)
Roanoke Vice Mayor Joe Cobb said that, after he was elected last year, he got a call from a downtown resident complaining that the only electric car charging station was all too frequently blocked by vehicles using it as a standard parking space. City officials responded by marking the station more clearly.
More projects are planned for the near future. The Heironimus building, a historic, four-story white elephant of a structure at a key intersection, was sold last year, and the new owners plan 80 apartments, plus a Mast General Store on the ground floor. The city also anticipates construction of a parking garage a block away.
West Salem developer Chapman credits the city’s steady drumbeat of capital projects over the last 15 years as a driving factor in downtown’s growth. “Each one of those small infrastructure projects adds up to the types of amenities that people seek downtown,” he said.
But the proposed bus station next door to his Lofts at West Station hit too close to home for Chapman and others with a stake in the neighborhood.
Roanoke officials proposed the relocation as part of a larger plan to build out an Amtrak passenger station and use the current bus station as the site of a new mixed-use development that would include offices and 105 new apartments. But the prospect of moving the bus station a few blocks west landed with a thud among residents and business owners on Salem Avenue.
“The idea of a new anchor coming in and becoming the dominant characteristic of our neighborhood is troubling,” Chapman said. “They want to build right at the intersection of the Downtown Historic District, the Salem Avenue Historic District, and one of the largest individually registered historic buildings, the [Virginia Museum of Transportation]. The idea of 1.9 million people per year being shuttled on buses through the neighborhood is not something we see as compatible.”
Chapman said he believes the new bus station will run into problems with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the state agency that oversees historic districts. The city council, however, has already effectively voted to move forward with the project through its approval of the two land transfers.
Cobb said that as a council member, he tried to balance the neighborhood’s concerns with the city’s greater needs.
“We as council had to really look at that in a big picture way, and figure out whether this helps us expand the idea of a multi-modal hub, considering what our possibilities and or limitations might be in terms of location,” Cobb said.
“Do we see this as a potential boost to that part of our downtown? I happen to think it is a boost. Will the design of the new station contribute to that? I think it will. How then do we address the questions of stigma and stereotype? Which, transit still has that challenge.”
The questions of stigma and stereotype came up repeatedly during the public hearing on the bus station, leading to heated exchanges between council members and those opposed to the project.
In an interview weeks after the council meeting, Cobb said the new downtown neighborhoods are driving a citywide resurgence that has spun off into surrounding neighborhoods that are also seeing a wave of redevelopment. That’s a great thing, he said, so long as the neighborhoods can retain what makes them special. That means embracing the racial, ethnic and socioeconomic variation that comes with cities.
“Part of the concern I have is that if we forget that we’re an urban center, we lose some of that charm,” Cobb said. “Part of what I love about Roanoke is the mix of people—the mix of culture, the mix of racial and ethnic diversity. I want to see more of that and not less of it. If we start to neutralize every place we live in, we miss out on that.”
Lea echoed his call for better communication with downtown residents throughout the course of a phone interview. But although the emergence of a new constituency of downtown residents has created new needs, he said, they ultimately boil down to “growing pains” that are part of seeing the city attain a new level of economic and social prosperity.
“I personally think, in my 15 years on council and five more on the school board, that Roanoke has never been in a better situation,” Lea said. “We’re faced with the challenges of a growing downtown, urban neighborhood. I think we can meet that challenge.”
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