This is the third installment in a multi-part series regarding proposed land use development for the Evans Spring area – the largest remaining open space in the city – located in Northwest Roanoke.
Pavilion Development Company, a Charlotte based firm, has worked for the past two years to assess the feasibility of constructing a mixed-use residential/commercial development on the land, secure purchase rights from owners of residential and investment lots in Evans Spring and conduct a series of periodic community meetings with residents from the adjacent neighborhoods to gauge their desires and concerns about future development as well as share updates regarding their proposal.
In late November, Pavilion hosted another community meeting to unveil its most detailed site proposal to date. Approximately 50 people attended. Gone was their reliance on PowerPoint slides. Instead, Pavilion asked attendees to divide into small groups and cluster near easels spread throughout the room to watch and listen as representatives presented the developer’s design. The switch to a small group format was a welcome change, enabling participants to engage more easily with the proposal and the developer’s representatives.
Pavilion’s illustration depicting the proposed mixed-use development appears on page 22. Though subject to change, the drawing highlights the core features planned as of late November. These features include a wide, tree-lined boulevard that laces the development before emptying out at the I-581 interchange at Valley View; a golf/entertainment complex; a wholesale anchor; two mid-size retail stores (one will be a grocer) positioned as a ballast for the crop of shops nearby; a residential zone to include 12 three-story apartment buildings (providing up to 290 units); and five outparcel lots lining one side of the boulevard that stretches from the entrance at 19th Street and Andrews Road to the I-581 interchange.
Before commencing with the public comments portion of the meeting, Pavilion reiterated some of the design objectives they sought to achieve with their plan:
As measured by the comments publicly expressed, the majority who spoke seemed dissatisfied with some of the same design features identified as concerns during the August community meeting and those documented in the Evans Spring Area Plan. They include apprehensions about commercial development, increased traffic, the type of housing to be offered, loss of open space, preservation of the greenway and environmental concerns associated with the Lick Run floodplain. Of the five or so topics discussed, two generated the most passion during November’s community meeting.
Tom Carr, a resident from Southeast Roanoke expressed dismay that the proposed residential units did not more closely follow the designs outlined in the Evans Spring Area Plan.
“The apartment buildings don’t reflect the housing in the existing neighborhoods. You’ve got commercial sites backing up to existing single-family residences. This is not what the city had in mind.”
The abutting of new development to existing neighborhoods occurred when the commercial complex at Valley View expanded in the late 1990s to include multiple outparcel lots along Valley View Boulevard. Some of the homes on Huff Lane and Greenwood Avenue can see the rear of the retail stores and restaurants below. For others, two buffers – a three-foot high berm and Huff Lane Park – obscure or fully block their exposure. Pavilion hopes to avoid this same problem for the homes on Andrews Road and Norris Drive by placing a 50-foot wide vegetative buffer around the proposed development. It will be up to residents and city officials to determine if such a solution is adequate.
“How much is rent going to be for the proposed apartments?” asked Pam Forrest, a resident from an adjacent neighborhood. Pavilion acknowledged they have yet to establish rent prices, adding they still are negotiating with rental operators. Their hope is that some would be moderately priced.
“You say the development will be pedestrian friendly,” said Forrest. “Great! We can walk through it. But what I see is almost no one from Northwest can afford to live there.”
As a market comparison, units in Westwind Apartment Homes, a 17-plus acre complex built in 1981 not far from Evans Spring, range from $779 for a one-bedroom to $1,197 for a three-bedroom unit. Rental prices for District Vue on Orange Avenue just east of Gus Nicks Boulevard, the newest apartment complex to open in the City of Roanoke, range from $1,050 for a one-bedroom to $1,560 for a three-bedroom unit. Prices for South16, which opened August 2017 on South Jefferson Street, range from $1,179 for a one-bedroom to $2,234 for a premium two-bedroom unit.
In contrast, the payment on a 20-year fixed-rate mortgage at 4.25% interest for a home costing $100,000 would be $619.23/month (assuming nothing down and no closing costs; excluding escrow for property taxes or homeowner’s insurance). “Quality housing comes in many forms,” the city acknowledged in a 2006 report, not just stock related to “owner occupied single-family housing.” Alternative forms such as low-rise quality condominiums, adaptive reuse apartments and patio homes also should be considered. However, the report stressed the importance of ensuring that adequate “housing options exist for working class citizens, including teachers, police officers, firefighters” and others who fill labor and service positions. The survey of current market prices underscores the challenge to achieving that goal.
Multiple requests to interview George Sheild, Senior Vice President and Development Manager for Pavilion Properties were extended. He replied by email that his schedule prevented him from being able to be interviewed. He said he wants residents (and readers) to know that “Pavilion appreciates all the input we have received to date” and “will continue to work diligently to create an environmentally sensitive mixed-use development that will benefit the neighborhood and the greater Roanoke community for decades to come.”
Delvis “Mac” McCadden asked, “Where are our elected representatives? Why aren’t they here?” As his voice lilted from emotion, the audience listened with rapt attention. A beat passed with no response. The scene called to mind a passage from Mindy Thompson Fullilove’s book, Root Shock, where she writes, “The breaking of the voice in hurt – or anger – is the edge of collective pain and grief . . .”
The frustration McCadden expressed was less the result of traumatic stress he or the community felt from the threat of dislocation prompted by urban renewal (like what happened in the city’s Gainsboro neighborhood decades ago); but rather from fear the community would be disenfranchised without more active representation from members of City Council. McCadden’s questions exposed that the interval between a developer’s announcement of his intentions for land use and City Council’s final up or down vote might feel to the public like a chasm where their interests fall and fail to be heard.
Leaning into the mic, McCadden said, “The community is not in on this. It feels like it’s a done deal.” Sheild responded: This is a public process. Pavilion is working to engage with the community in advance of that process. Changes to our proposal continue to be made. Citizens have multiple opportunities for input.
What role do members of City Council have in helping residents negotiate mutually acceptable terms for large-scale neighborhood development projects?
Two days before Thanksgiving, via e-mail this question was put to four members of City Council – Bill Bestpitch, Joe Cobb, Michelle Davis and Trish White-Boyd.
Cobb said his responsibility was to listen, to be available to citizens (and staff members) to understand where bottlenecks may exist in the process, and learn where he can guide the parties in setting clear expectations, developing structure or ways to address perceived conflicts. “My mission is about connectivity,” Cobb said, “and finding those common threads that bind us. Once those threads are clear, I look for ways to increase the connections.”
Trish White-Boyd wrote, “City Council will always have a role in rezoning.” She invited residents with any concerns or comments about the process to call or email her.” Bill Bestpitch said, “The first and most important role of City Council is to ensure that staff members understand our expectation that developers will be advised to consult with neighborhoods and other interested parties before their proposals are finalized.” In Pavilion Development Company’s case, this is being done.
Is the goal of elected officials to be neutral regarding potential policy until the request appears before them for vote?
Though members from various city administrative departments, including Planning, have and do send staff to developers’ community meetings to observe (as was the case in Pavilion’s November meeting), Council Member Davis’ written response provided the clearest answer as to why City Council members have not attended past Evans Spring Area community meetings sponsored by the developer. She wrote: “Elected officials are discouraged from attending those type of meetings because they are not a sanctioned public hearing. Public hearings are meetings in which notice is published so that everyone may attend and speak on an issue. This is a governance issue, not a lack of Council interest in a subject matter.”
Davis, like Bill Bestpitch and Joe Cobb, all separately concurred that the best way for citizens to inform and involve council members is to reach out to them directly. Their responses shed new light on why Mayor Sherman Lea declined to be interviewed when asked for his opinion regarding Evans Spring Area development. Their support then appears to be more than neutrality but less than advocacy because it is premised on the ideal that Council members must maintain an open mind prior to Council meetings where receipt of public comment is essential to a fair process.
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Alan Mallach, Senior Fellow for the Center for Community Progress, wrote in the introduction of “America’s Middle Neighborhoods: Setting the Stage for Revival,” his working paper for the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, that “Throughout most of the history of America’s older cities, middle neighborhoods where the city’s working class and middle-class families live and where incomes and house prices are typically close to citywide medians – have been the backbone of those cities.” Though the composition of this group began shifting to the suburbs during the boom years of the 50s and 60s, and began to shrink during the deindustrialization of the 70s and 80s, Mallach adds, “Middle neighborhoods are still an important part of legacy cities and their surrounding metropolitan areas.”
With this in mind, the sheer scale of open land available for development in Evans Spring – approximately 120+ acres, rare by any modern city’s standards – provides one of the greatest opportunities Roanoke has to demonstrate to other legacy cities how land use policies can revitalize a city’s middle neighborhoods by including, not excluding them, from the planning and benefits of mixed-use development proposed on their periphery. Their engagement and inclusion are critical to success if the benefits of development are to extend to all.