The men of the moment at the time of Design ‘79 were chief designer Chad Floyd (right) and Roanoke City Manager Bern Ewert.
The story below is excerpted from our Sept./Oct. 2014 issue. For the full story view our digital edition for FREE today!
Credit for the successful implementation of Design ‘79 – both at the time of its conception and over the 35 years since – has gone too largely to the business committee that helped back it. The real kudos, according to the man who shepherded its every step, go to the citizens of Roanoke, who turned out en masse to provide input, and voted in favor of the needed funding.
Shortly after I was hired as Roanoke City Manager in January, 1978 and was given six specific charges (see sidebar), I proposed a study of downtown. Roanoke City Council authorized me to solicit proposals and hire a consultant to assist in developing an action plan. We advertised, and then interviewed firms. I made the selection, proposed the firm Moore Grover Harper and the American City Corporation to city council, and they approved a contract in August of 1978. The study findings for Design ‘79 were presented to me eight months later, in April of 1979.
One of the reasons I was hired was because of my previous involvement in Charlottesville in the design, approval and construction of the Downtown Mall, which was dedicated and opened in July of 1976. In those days very few people, city managers, or individuals for that matter, had experience developing a downtown revitalization action plan.
In fact, virtually, no one in Roanoke, in the government, the business community or the community at large, had experience creating a plan that included restoration of existing buildings. Most plans consisted of “redevelopment” – demolition of existing buildings, many of which were historic buildings. In Roanoke many business leaders supported such an approach near the Civic Center and in Downtown East, adjacent to and behind the library. In 1978 Downtown East was a gravel parking lot for 1,400 cars. The Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority and well-known business leaders advocated the continuation of demolition downtown and in Gainsboro.
I did not. I supported historic preservation and rehabilitation of existing buildings and infill of new buildings and parking garages and turning a part of downtown into an entertainment and cultural destination. I wasn’t sure what kind.
Bond money would be needed to revitalize downtown and in those days city council required that any bond be approved by a majority of voters. We knew that the Roanoke Civic Center had required three public votes before it was approved. Additionally, we knew that Roanoke’s citizens were very leery of spending money downtown, as large parts of it were blighted and appeared unsafe.
Additionally, a large parking garage had been built on Church Ave. to serve and induce the construction of three new office buildings, and the garage was unpopular with many Roanokers. Finally, many citizens had just plain given up on downtown, although, they had elected a new seven-member city council to try one more time. However, optimism was not a word one would use to describe the electorate.
I set out to design a citizen participation program that would insure involvement and generate excitement from people throughout the region and particularly in the city. I had selected Moore Grover Harper as our design firm. Their chief designer was Chad Floyd. I had known Chad professionally when I was town manager of Stratford, Connecticut and was impressed with his architectural skills and enthusiasm.
He brought the idea of the live interactive Design-a-Thon, on commercial TV. WDBJ agreed to sponsor a prime-time program with a bank of phones that allowed people to call in questions and for live interviews of citizens.
In addition, I insisted that we have a storefront office on Market Square, so citizens could walk in and give ideas. This office received 3,000 suggestions. Finally I established two leaders committees, one with 50 citizens and one with 14 business leaders. This model was, “unprecedented in the history of urban design,” according to Floyd.
I invited all business leaders to participate. Jack Fishwick, CEO and President of the Norfolk and Western, had a policy of not participating in civic ventures as he didn’t want to appear to be forcing the city to do what the railroad wanted. It took hard work to convince him that we needed him.