This is the fourth installment in a multi-part series regarding proposed land use development for the Evans Spring area – the largest remaining open space in the City of Roanoke. The land is located west of Valley View Boulevard and south of Hershberger Road.
After more than two years assessing the feasibility of constructing a mixed-use residential/commercial development and securing the purchase rights to 125 acres, Pavilion Development Company, a Charlotte-based firm, withdrew its rezoning request in February, effectively ending for now, the development of Evans Spring.
Withdrawal of the application which was submitted to Roanoke City’s Planning Department in late January, generated shockwaves among many community activists and residents who had either been engaged in promoting the proposed development project, seeking ways to encourage Pavilion to alter its design to more closely align with the Evans Spring Area Plan, adopted by City Council in 2013, or trying to stop Pavilion’s proposal.
“I was surprised they withdrew their application,” said Jordan Bell, a millennial and community activist who works at a nearby elementary school. “Lots of people in my generation had a positive view towards Evans Spring development. They were excited that a golf/entertainment complex might come to Roanoke. But the older people I knew, residents over age 50, saw prospective development as an intrusion. They worried how it would impact their home values, property taxes, their neighborhood’s serenity and safety, and especially how increased traffic, particularly vehicles at 19th Street and Andrews Road, would affect students attending the Roanoke Academy for Math and Science located on that corner.”
Tiffany Jordan, a young adult professional who grew up on Top Hill Drive, said her reaction was a mixture of exuberant relief and deep encouragement. “I’m ecstatic,” she declared during a brief phone interview. “I’m excited because for so long people in our neighborhood have felt unheard. But this time we were heard. The Planning Commission let the developer know they couldn’t come into our neighborhood and put in whatever they wanted just because it was economically feasible for them.”
Jordan said she was cheered by how many residents got engaged in the process. “Social media played a big part. The amount of community activism that occurred was inspiring” she said. “Facebook posts were exchanged, articles were shared, phone calls were made. A lot was done to educate people regarding how the proposed development would affect them.”
Tom Carr, a Roanoke resident and retired city planner, echoed Jordan’s sense of relief. “I’m glad they withdrew their application,” Carr said. “It didn’t meet the city or neighborhood’s vision for how the land should be developed.” He referred to the Evans Spring Area Plan as containing the guiding principles he wanted to see followed.
After attending the developer-sponsored community meetings last summer and early fall, Carr felt Pavilion had listened to citizens’ concerns, but did not act on them. “There was no attempt to adapt and integrate their proposed development with the existing neighborhoods.” His chief objection was that the planned apartment complex – 13 three-story buildings designed to contain 300 residential (one- and two-bedroom) units – was jammed into one corner of the site plan, too close to the single-story ranch houses that populate Sherman Drive on the adjacent street. Though the developer committed to separate the existing residences from the apartment complex with a vegetative 30- to 50-foot wide barrier, Carr said that was insufficient. He feared the mash-up would have been “Frankensteinian in nature.” However visceral the image, his alarm was not shared by all.
“What were they supposed to do?” said Liz Belcher, Roanoke City Greenway Coordinator, when contacted by phone for her thoughts regarding Pavilion’s withdrawal. “Though I don’t live in the neighborhood, I attended the community meetings,” Belcher volunteered. “Originally, Evans Spring was subdivided for single-family homes like the community said they wanted. But I heard the developer say that if single-family homes could have been successfully developed there, they would have been built already.”
The obstacle, Belcher opined, was not unwillingness to incorporate requests desired by the community, but the need to generate sufficient sales revenue through the commercial tenants to create an acceptable cost/benefit ratio that would offset the expense of installing an access road from the I-581 Valley View interchange into the new development.
“Pavilion has shown their willingness to take on such risk,” she said. “They want to make a go of it. A connection like that is going to cost millions.”
Belcher isn’t wrong. But the cost of road construction isn’t the only disincentive. The design of the conduit needed to link an access road to the interchange is also a barrier. To build a connection inside the mixed-use development from the proposed intersection at 19th Street to the highway, the new artery would need to curve up and northeastward 70 feet to meet the interchange. A grading of this nature would require erecting a retaining wall of up to 60 feet in height that would run essentially across the backyards of the ranch homes on Norris Drive. This challenge was never presented to the community during the public meetings Pavilion hosted.
If it were your neighborhood where such a proposal was being made, would you want it?
“Maybe there’s a way to build a residential housing development in Evans Spring,” Belcher concluded, “but, without an access road to the interchange somewhere in the mix, it would be terribly secluded.”
Bob Clement, Roanoke’s former Neighborhoods Coordinator, reiterated his desire that stakeholders’ needs be balanced. “Developers who adhere to the Evans Spring Area Plan will have greater success in winning endorsement from the community and getting their application approved,” he suggested. He recommended readers and prospective developers look at Birkdale Village at Lake Norman as a model for future land-use proposals. “It’s beautiful!” Clement exclaimed.
“Birkdale Village represents a modern version of an ideal American Main Street.” There, commercial enterprise co-exists and intermingles with residential zones in a natural, authentic way without one superseding the other. “Their mix of single-family residences, condos, townhouses and apartments is beautiful,” Clement added. “And they have parking lots for commercial traffic, but they’re hidden by vegetation and clever layouts.”
The Charlotte-area is filled with examples of seemingly successful mixed-used developments. Why didn’t Pavilion incorporate more of those design elements in its Evans Spring Area proposal? Three attempts were made to solicit comment from Maryellen Goodlatte, principal with Glenn Feldmann Darby & Goodlatte, the law firm representing Pavilion. She did not return our requests for comment.
Can a fresh perspective be found that might dislodge the stalemate of competing priorities: money over people, commerce over affordable housing, no road access or the diminishment of residents’ personal property? Perhaps the desire of people like Tiffany Jordan, young professionals looking to buy starter homes in Northwest Roanoke, provides a clue.
“I’m not against development,” Jordan said. “I know the City has to grow in order to attract and retain people. But it has to be done in decency and order; not at the expense of dismantling existing neighborhoods.” For her, the key is integrating new with old, increasing the bandwidth of a proposal’s features so the benefits extend to all who come as well as all who stay. “This entire experience has made me sensitive to ‘tearing down’ things,” Jordan said. “Why can’t we look at what already exists [and is empty] for commercial use before we tear up open land.”
Estelle McCadden, a longtime Roanoke resident who has been involved in community meetings regarding Evans Spring Area development for more than eight years, recommended developers “engage with the neighborhood councils early and put something over there that will prosper and help the stable people who live in that community,” she said. McCadden is against bringing in another big box store because she is afraid it will cannibalize existing wholesale retailers already present in and around Valley View. “I want to see a prospective developer provide affordable housing and address our concerns about traffic,” McCadden concluded.
In their application, Pavilion forecast that potential economic impact generated by their planned mixed-use development could be as high as $270 million in annual sales revenue and an increase of up to 1,000 permanent jobs for Roanoke. These statistics are a cogent reminder of what’s at stake for the city financially. Fortunately, the Planning Commission demonstrated that money is not the only concern. Of equal importance is how potential land-use projects advance or hinder renewal of the city’s neighborhoods and well-being of its citizens, effect existing, successful commercial enterprises, and impact the long-term strategy City Council agreed to use to grow Roanoke’s appeal as an affordable, inclusive, dynamic place to live, work and play. The sudden withdrawal of Pavilion Development Company’s rezoning application highlights that an engaged citizenry seeking best practice urban design principles can influence decision-makers to re-examine what projects constitute a win-win for all stakeholders. Let’s hope our city’s residents, civil servants, and elected leaders continue their engagement and adherence to such design principles until an amicable development project for Evans Spring can be found.