David Hungate, Dominion Images
Nathan Vaught credits speedy permits from the city for some of the downtown success.
A tenfold increase over the past decade in the number of people living downtown is emblematic of the multiple multi-million-dollar projects that have vaulted the city’s core into an exciting and perhaps unprecedented growth spurt.
Couple of important points you need to know:
Since 2010, Roanoke City’s population has grown by two percent, which turns the Weldon-Cooper Center projection of a decrease on its head. For the first time since the 1980s, Roanoke will have 100,000 people in the very near future. That means more than you might imagine. Many of those new people are moving downtown and re-making that long-quiet portion of the city. As one developer said recently, “I want buildings that have the lights on 24 hours a day.” That’s coming.
The projects have been so numerous in recent years that they have been disruptive. They’ve caused merchants to complain and long-time visitors to head for the mall, but they haven’t discouraged those who want to live downtown. Just a few years ago – a decade – there were 114 people living in downtown Roanoke. There are 1,400 right now with several new housing projects near completion that could bump that number up to 2,000 in a year or so. Builders don’t even know what the saturation point is, but they know they’re not close to it yet.
As residents move in, services follow and creatives plan what’s next. Press-shy Ed Walker and his Small City (X)po crowd continue to “vision” and to build on that vision, while John Garland re-purposes an old cafeteria as a true civic center. A small group of young developers renovates buildings nobody else wants and young people move in. Center in the Square and the City Market Building spend a ton of money on upgrades and a big new amphitheater opens for the spring season. The Roanoke River Greenway grows in coverage almost daily and in use by the hour. The Taubman Museum opens its galleries for free. A snazzy new library is planned at the cap of Jefferson Street and former City Manager Bern Ewert’s huge living project to the south, near Virginia Tech Carilion, will likely expand the definition of downtown, as a couple of projects on the west end have already done. Pressure to sell and renovate the long empty, 90,000-square-foot Heironimus building grows.
It’s disruptive, dynamic, exciting, confusing, and ultimately Roanokers will decide if it is successful. So far, they seem to have bought in, especially with downtown living.
Says Roanoke City Planning Director Chris Chittum: “In the 2001 city plan, we saw the value of historic tax credits for rehabilitation of old buildings. … If we hadn’t done that, [the buildings] would have been frozen in time. All this development has been driven by the 45 percent tax credits.” The city’s Redevelopment & Housing Authority planted the seed by renovating the old Norfolk & Western Building at 8 Jefferson Place.
City Manager Chris Morrill: “We’ve tried to make it comfortable to invest [in downtown]. There is a lot of pent up demand.”