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.There are currently no comments highlighted.