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Developing old middle school site weighs on Blacksburg
Amid years of delays, a revamped proposal for the old Blacksburg Middle School site is anticipated.
Thursday, March 21, 2013
BLACKSBURG -- Frustration is growing among Blacksburg and Montgomery County officials as plans for the old Blacksburg Middle School site change once more.
With a long-awaited rezoning application and a revamped proposal from the would-be developers expected in town offices Monday, county officials are eager to ease budget pressures with a multi-million-dollar sale of the former school property. But town officials, who have long called the redevelopment of the 20-acre site crucial to downtown Blacksburg's future, worry that the new proposal won't give them enough details to make an informed decision about the rezoning to let the project move forward.
Town officials bristled at a recent county suggestion that the town was about to hand over two small pieces of the site, former school parking lots, so that they could be sold with the rest of the property.
"There is no way in hell we are going to lose control of those parcels until we have some reasonable assurance that there is viable plan in place," Vice Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith wrote in an email Thursday.
Recent events with the old middle school project include:
Competition didn't happen
Redevelopment discussions have consumed the decade since a new Blacksburg Middle School opened. They have played out against a backdrop of awkward relationships between the county school board, supervisors and Blacksburg Town Council, and between the council and Stosser, who have twice battled all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court over other Stosser projects.
"Two years ago the supervisors and town voted to hold a competition," for plans to develop the site, Hager-Smith wrote in an emailed summary of proposals for the site. "It didn't happen. Then the town began to urge the county to at least advertise the property (RFP), and inconceivably they did not. Instead, they took the first offer that came along, which happened to be from the same party that has twice taken the town to the state supreme court and lost - twice. What result did they expect to get? ... It's a pig's breakfast, served up piping hot by the county Board of Supervisors."
Funds needed for schools
At a Tuesday work session, town council members told the town manager to sign the rezoning application when it came in, since as a part-owner of the overall site, the town has to sign the application, as well as judge it. But town officials warned that the act would have no bearing on whether or not the council ultimately OKs a rezoning.
County officials hope the sale of the middle school site will make it easier to cover costs from the ongoing construction of two new high schools and a renovated middle school.
Supervisors Chairman Jim Politis, who was in the audience for Tuesday's council work session, wrote in an email Thursday, "I believe the community will be impressed with the developers' plan for a quality, well designed mixed use development. After nearly two years of deliberations, we look forward to the town moving ahead so that we can reap the economic development benefits and bring in much needed funds for school capital needs."
Supervisor Matt Gabriele , also at the work session, added, "I was happy that the town council decided to allow the developer to file their application. It has indeed been a long process but, after both town and county having seen several drafts of - and offered feedback on - the proposed development, it's indeed time for all of us (town, county, and public) to see the developer's final proposal ... the town's been part of the process the entire time so I'm hopeful something will finally get done."
Emails between town and county officials show that the county last month shut down regular meetings held to discuss the old middle school project. When Blacksburg Mayor Ron Rordam protested that communication had been a problem and the talks were helpful, Politis answered that it was time to let the developer work, and talks could resume when an application was filed.
Tenant relocated after delay
Doug Juanarena , who leads the Blacksburg operation for Rackspace, said Thursday that his company decided to relocate to a new building that will be constructed in the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center because it was taking too long to reach agreement for plans for the old middle school site.
"We have decided to move on. ... Different contingencies in our community have different visions for the property," Juanarena said, predicting that it would be another year or two before agreement is reached on a development proposal.
He said Rackspace hopes to announce soon more details of its new headquarters, which will house about 150 workers.
Modea President David Catalano could not be reached Thursday. A spokeswoman at Continental said she would try to find someone to discuss the project, but there was no further reply to questions.
Stosser said Thursday that like town officials, she had been "not enthralled" with plans Continental produced this year. These dropped features that council members had applauded at presentations last fall, like a large multi use open space near Rackspace and Modea's headquarters. Plans had shown a mix of multifamily housing types, a hotel, restaurant, park area and paths.
Stosser said she turned to another architect for the plans that will be turned in Monday, and said they will restore some of what the council wanted.
"Some of the plaza's back, but not in the same form that they might like. ... We've brought back as many [features] as we can," Stosser said. Town council members have pushed developers to add single-family housing, residential units aimed at senior citizens, and the new proposal will include an area where the town can build whatever sort of housing it wants to, Stosser said.
Modea can no longer be described as an anchor but other, larger commercial prospects will be the dominant occupants of the development if it is built, Stosser said. She declined to identify the businesses that might locate in the development, saying all discussions, like the purchase from the county itself, are contingent on Blacksburg approving a rezoning.
As for the approximately $5.6 million price that developers were to pay Montgomery County under a 2011 sale agreement, Stosser said renegotiation was likely as the development partners reached a better understanding of what is economically feasible.
Stosser said she tried not to let her past battles with the town color her thoughts about this project. "We try to let business stay business ... and if we turn in an application, we hope to be treated the same as anybody else," she said.
Town officials said that whatever the final decision on the old middle school site is, they are working on other large projects that will benefit both town and county tax rolls. Both localities tax real estate in the town.
"This project is a hair up the county's a-- because of their own poor planning," Hager-Smith wrote in an e mail. "But it should not be viewed as the sole contribution Blacksburg is making to the schools nor the county generally. We just approved 900 beds at Oak Bridge, we are looking at other large student housing proposals, First and Main is coming back in a big way there's plenty to keep our staff busy and to expand the county's coffers."
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