Roanoke has agreed to sell a 200-year-old cottage and just over an acre of Fishburn Park to a couple for use as a coffee shop.
City Council voted 6-1 on Monday to convey the Fishburn Park caretaker’s cottage and land to residents Keri Kidd vanBlaricom and Justin vanBlaricom. Councilwoman Stephanie Moon Reynolds voted against the deal.
The vanBlaricoms intend to invest at least $150,000 to restore the dilapidated cottage into a cafe with the working name of Fishburn Perk, which would sell missional coffee.
City Council consented to sell the property for $10 on the condition that the vanBlaricoms substantially fix up the cabin within a year. If they sell the property within four years, the couple must pay the city $83,000, roughly the assessed value of the cottage.
“I’m happy to see the building restored and I’m looking forward to working with vanBlaricoms on improving the overall user experience at Fishburn Park,” Michael Clark, the city’s director of parks and recreation, said in an email.
The 1,080-foot caretaker’s cottage is sometimes referred to as the Blackwell House after a family whose patriarch maintained the park as a city employee. Its fate has been a point of contention over the years.
The city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, which is made up of 11 citizens, opposed the vanBlaricom’s proposal and said Roanoke should not give up 1.1 acres of parkland, which the vanBlaricoms said they needed to get a business loan.
Several neighbors also voiced strong opposition to the sale.
“This deal is not really about restoring an old cottage. It’s about obtaining an acre of prime real estate for $10,” Owen McGuire, president of the Grandin Court Neighborhood Association, told Council members Monday. “Our city parks are not a liability or excess inventory. They are treasured assets.”
More than a decade ago, the neighborhood association raised money to fix the building’s roof and proposed the city could retrofit the cottage as a community center. City leaders said the association never submitted a formal bid to buy the building.
In 2017, the neighborhood group led the opposition to a proposal to sell the property to Lora Katz, an architect and former city planning commissioner, to use as a private residence.
Council voted to sell the property. But Katz soon backed out of the deal, citing high cost estimates to renovate the structure, which dates to the 1830s or earlier.
Justin vanBlaricom acknowledged that restoring the cottage will require significant investment. He noted at a Council meeting last month that one construction company said it would cost more than $300,000 for the foundation alone.
Several neighbors have expressed support for the idea. An online petition started a month ago urging the city to approve the contract with the vanBlaricoms has garnered more than 600 signatures.
Ryan Blackwell, a descendant of the park’s caretaker, has also expressed support for the vanBlaricom’s proposal.
“My family is very deep-rooted in Roanoke and the park,” he said at a Council meeting last month. “My grandfather took great pride in that house being well maintained. He would be very upset with the state that the house is in. He would be ecstatic knowing that someone wanted to bring it back.”
The city’s contract limits the property’s use to certain businesses, such as a bakery, community market, meeting hall or eating establishment. Such a provision prevents the cottage from eventually becoming a fast-food restaurant, for example, according to the city attorney.
Roanoke’s sale of the Fishburn Park property is not without precedent.
Since 2011, the city has sold off at least 17 acres of parkland or recreational facilities, according to a Rambler analysis of real estate data.
That includes several buildings in parks that were falling apart. In 2017, the city sold an 1820 mansion that served as a recreation center in Northwest Roanoke’s Villa Heights Park. Restoration Housing has renovated the building, which now houses nonprofits. And in 2011, Roanoke sold a mansion in Belmont (then Jackson) Park for use as a private residence.
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