Ramblings: Roanoke Sells Site for Affordable Housing; Fishburn Park Coffee Shop Bid Gets Crucial Vote; New Preston Park School Okayed

What are Ramblings? Ramblings are a collection of short items that have caught our attention for one reason or another.

What are Ramblings? Ramblings are a collection of short items that have caught our attention for one reason or another. We’re on the lookout for tidbits related to money in politics, data, business, civic engagement or interesting events. Think you know of something that could be a Rambling? Drop us a line at editor@roanokerambler.com and we may well write about it. Happy reading!

Adjacent to Roanoke’s new bus station, the property lies in the city’s growing west downtown area, which boasts upscale apartments, three breweries, a bookstore and a plant shop. PHOTO BY HENRI GENDREAU FOR THE ROANOKE RAMBLER

Roanoke sells downtown site for affordable housing

Roanoke has agreed to sell its former Homeless Assistance Team office downtown to developers proposing a six-story tower of apartments for low- and middle-income residents.

Chris Vail and Brent Cochran say they intend to invest $8 million to construct 80 one- and two-bedroom apartments units on the property at 339 Salem Avenue.

Just before Council voted 6-0 on the sale Monday, City Attorney Tim Spencer noted the developer duo asked “to make their housing more affordable” by extending eligibility to tenants making 30 percent of the area median income, down from a proposed range of 50 to 60 percent.

In the Roanoke region, one person making $32,000 annually is considered to be 50 percent of the area median income, according to a federal housing database.

“I think this is very exciting,” Councilman Peter Volosin said. “A lot of folks here may not know, but our Council is working behind the scenes day and night to try and continue to make more affordable housing here in Roanoke.”

The proposed development sits beside Roanoke’s new bus station in an increasingly trendy part of west downtown.

Vail, an executive at Roanoke-based Sycamore Development Company, said median rents for a one-bedroom unit will range from $561 to $732 and for two-bedroom units from $673 to $878.

He noted the development hinges on receiving federal low-income housing tax credits.

Virginia Housing, a government agency that runs the program in state, typically approves roughly half of such requests each year, according to a spokeswoman.

If the development team is not awarded the credits, it would hand the property back to the city, Vail said. The contract says the quarter-acre property, which is assessed at $384,500, will be sold for $10 on the condition of the multi-million dollar investment.

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Fishburn Park coffee shop plan nears reality

Roanoke’s sale of an acre of Fishburn Park and a cottage that a couple proposes renovating into a coffee shop is nearly complete after a crucial vote Monday.

City Council decided 6-0 to rezone a portion of the park to allow for the business after a protracted battle that pitted Grandin Court neighbors against each other. (Councilwoman Stephanie Moon Reynolds, whose mother died last week, was absent Monday.)

“Truth and perseverance has prevailed. Fishburn Perk is a GO!!” residents Kerri and Justin vanBlaricom said in a Facebook post after the vote, referring to the name of the proposed coffee shop.

The rezoning was the last major step before the vanBlaricoms close on the sale by the end of September. In December, Council agreed to sell the property for $10 on the condition they invest at least $150,000 in fixing up the dilapidated cottage, which dates to the 1830s.

Opponents have decried the proposal as a sweetheart deal. The latest challenge to the sale involved a change to the application stating that the cottage would be restored “if found to be structurally sound.” The contract says “the city” must give approval, or not, before demolition.

City Attorney Tim Spencer assured Council would have to vote on that, saying he “will put my job on the line that it will be in the deed itself.”

Freeda Cathcart, an activist who has spearheaded opposition to the project, urged Council to know whether the cottage could be salvaged before closing on the land sale.

Other neighbors have rallied to the vanBlaricoms’ defense, saying Cathcart and others have spread rumors about the couple and the proposal. (Last month, residents voted to oust her and resident Owen McGuire as officers of the Grandin Court Neighborhood Association over the issue.)

The fate of the caretaker’s cottage has taken a long, circuitous route.

After agreeing to the sale in December, Council did an about-face in May when it denied the vanBlaricoms’ initial rezoning request, with members citing concerns about the environment, parking and using the 1.1 acres as collateral for a bank loan.

Council later revised the contract with the couple, divvying up the parcel for park use and business use and allowing the city first rights to buy the property back if the vanBlaricoms sell.

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Council agrees to new Preston Park Elementary School

Preston Park Elementary School community members will be getting a new, $34-million school after approval Monday from Roanoke City Council.

Council voted 5-0 to rezone the property to allow for the new building design, which city staff flagged as not compatible with Roanoke’s master plan. Councilwoman Stephanie Moon Reynolds was absent and Councilwoman Vivian Sanchez-Jones recused herself because she works for the school district.

The school district hopes to open the building by the fall of 2026 to replace the overcrowded school that opened in the 1950s. Location of the new school on the 13-acre property will allow 520 students to attend the existing school while construction takes place.

“This plan is championed by our highly skilled and experienced teachers, staff and Preston Park Elementary School community,” Superintendent Verletta White told Council. “We believe that this plan is the most cost effective and fiscally responsible plan due to the topography of the site. We also believe that this plan will be a community asset for decades to come.”

Roanoke’s planning commission last week approved the plan, overruling objections from city staff. Commissioners said they were swayed by remarks from teachers and parents who urged them to approve the district’s design.

Teachers said the roughly 85,000-square-feet building — which will accommodate 700 students — is overdue in the fast-growing Preston Park neighborhood. They said denying the district’s rezoning request would mean schools would have to build on the existing footprint, causing two years of students being bused to different schools or learning out of makeshift classrooms.

City planners said the building was too far back from the street, and that Roanoke’s master plan calls for a more urban design to promote bicycling and walking.

School officials insisted a further setback on the property is best for safety in the era of school shootings. They also said it would protect kids who run away from school and toward traffic.

Tom Carr, a retired city planner, spoke in favor of the school district’s plans at Council’s meeting Monday.

“Regardless of the location of the school, it will never be walkable unless the surrounding streets are made safe for walking and biking,” he said. “Those safe streets are your responsibility, not the schools’.”

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