Reinventing Roanoke

Thirty years ago when I worked for the Roanoke Times, the City of Roanoke was obsessed with revitalizing its sleepy downtown. Roanokers were fiercely loyal to their central business district and celebrated every small success. But the odds seemed stacked against them. Midsized cities lacking a major university presence have fared poorly economically in the past three decades. Indeed, Roanoke suffered body blow after body blow as its top employer, Norfolk Southern, progressively shrunk its presence to zero.

But rather than sounding a death knell, the departure of Norfolk Southern freed up railroad office buildings for conversion to apartments and, against all odds, Roanoke’s revival.

As reported by the urbanism website CityLab, the conversion in 2002 of one Norfolk Southern office building into a collegiate and job training center and another into an 87-unit apartment building set downtown on a new path. Backed by historic tax credits and $20 million in city capital projects, developers have converted many old commercial buildings to residential use. In 2000, fewer than 50 people lived downtown. Today, more than 1,800 do.

Writes article author Mason Adams: “The Star City … created a model this century for how small industrial cities can reinvent themselves.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The Roanoke Valley is hardly booming right now. But the city is reinventing itself, creating in downtown the kinds of places that creatives and Millennials want to live. It is undergoing the same kind of transformation, on a smaller scale, as Richmond has. After a wrenching transition during and after the 2008 recession, Richmond now leads Virginia metro areas in economic growth. Hopefully, Roanoke will experience a similar rebound.

Moral of the story: Why is Roanoke’s downtown district and surrounding neighborhoods reinventing itself and not the valley’s suburbs? Because downtown has assets that people now value: walkability, including a pedestrian-friendly street grid and sufficient density to support a wide variety of amenities within walking distance. Downtown also has a large stock of historic buildings. Perhaps most important of all, Roanoke’s zoning code has not impeded the conversion of buildings from one land use in declining demand (office space) into a different land use enjoying growing demand (residential). Roanoke has had the freedom to evolve with changing market demand. Suburban places, embedded in their residential/commercial/retail pods lack are stuck in amber. All Virginians can learn from Roanoke’s example.

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3 responses to “Reinventing Roanoke

  1. I remember when that city market building in your photo had a target on it for destruction. My old man was one of the people who successfully argued to keep it and renovate it instead. Forty, forty-five years is but a blink of an eye….

  2. Try to imagine that scene in Bacon’s photograph above without the stunning city market in it. I can’t imagine that scene of Roanoke without that building.

    That resurrected city market building preserves not only the old esthetics of a new downtown. It preserves Roanoke’s history and culture while its powers a modern reincarnation that draws youth, life and wealth back into the city. And builds there a more powerful beating heart for the city. One that mixes far more strongly all of that new vitality up and releases it into many new and variant forms and iterations that spawn and spread new energy outward, creating within the city one cornucopia of gifts after another, building a city whose whole is far better than its parts.

    That new downtown center that clusters around that old city market works in mutually reinforcing harmonies and ways with everything around it. I saw that scene, walked those streets, felt that power indoor and out, and was elevated by it for two days, and left refreshed and happy to have been there 3 years ago.

    Those who saved and revived that building gave their city and its citizens a great and timeless gift and sparked a Renaissance that will keep giving and enriching all it touches for generations. I have seen that happen again and again. That is why so many places in Virginia can have a great future if those who live there grab the opportunities right in front of them.

  3. The first time I got a true sense of the power of historic preservation to bring a city or town or place back to life was walking through the Joseph Manigault House in Charleston. It was around 1920 when a woman went to war to save that old home about to be demolished to build a Esso gas station. Her determination sparked the revolution that saved Charleston’s historic downtown. To tour that house today is to walk into amazingly different and highly refined world, one of many facets, including the stunning accomplishments in America by an entire group of persecuted people who fled Europe, the Huguenots.

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