Win tickets to see the smash hit musical Mamma Mia at the Roanoke Civic Center. Two winners will each receive four tickets!
Sunday, August 18, 2013
Nothing lasts forever, and a city like Roanoke, with a history of almost 130 years, is a tapestry of old and new, some of its buildings built decades ago, some recently put into service, but most with a pedigree of somewhere in between. And while a building’s original purpose has certain limits as to functionality, structural condition and technological relevance, Roanoke’s experience demonstrates that a building with good bones can serve another purpose and live on for future generations.
Our landscape is replete with examples, from such iconic structures as the Hotel Roanoke and the City Market Building, to those as mundane as railside warehouses and former car dealerships that now are residences. Even a forlorn and forgotten cold-storage warehouse now houses apartments, a restaurant and a climbing gym in Wasena.
Think of it as recycling on steroids. Tons and tons of materials kept out of our landfills, and years and years of memories preserved for ourselves and passed on to our children. Obviously, not every building can be saved, nor may it be financially feasible for every building to be repurposed. Cities are ever-evolving systems expressing the delicate juxtaposition of the built and natural environments; places where buildings, old and new, tell the story of the past and express the aspirations of the future.
It is within this context that the city of Roanoke considers the disposition of public facilities that no longer serve their originally intended purposes. Much has been said and written recently about the city council’s action in May regarding the former YMCA building at 425 Church Ave. S.W. in downtown. It was acquired by the city in 2006 in exchange for vacant land adjacent to the Jefferson Center upon which now sits the Kirk Family YMCA. And while it was obvious at the time that the building had served the YMCA well for 50 years, the time had come to consider what role it could play in the future of downtown.
Over a number of years, the city council considered ways to leverage the property for the long-term benefit of the community. It could have sought a simple sale of the property for a one-time payment without having any direct role in how the property would be utilized, or when it would be rehabilitated, or even if the building would be retained. To the contrary, the city’s focus was to patiently work toward a more comprehensive approach.
In May, the council approved a contract that conveyed the property to a developer for $10. But the contract goes far beyond just that one provision. The limited liability corporation accepted certain obligations and responsibilities to renovate and rehabilitate that structure into a mixed use/residential project. Also, the buyer has put in place a performance bond of $250,000 and may be required to put up an additional bond of $250,000 to ensure completion of the project under the terms and conditions of the contract. If it does not complete the project as required under the sales agreement, the city could obtain up to $500,000 for the property.
If the buyer performs as outlined in the contract within the time frames specified, it would have met its obligations and would owe the city no further compensation for the property than the $10 paid at closing. But let’s explore what the outcomes are in that event. The property, which has not been on the city’s tax rolls since 1956, would be subject to real estate tax; the developer would have invested an estimated $7 million in the overall project; the corner of Fifth and Church would regain an active building across the street from a state-of-the-art YMCA; and a property with a distinctive architectural style and a rich history in the lives of many Roanokers would be preserved.
Could the city have accepted $50,000 for the property, or $100,000, and taken the money and run, so to speak? Sure. But the city’s benefit in a real estate transaction, unlike a private property owner, does not begin and end at the closing table. Through property taxes and consumption/activity taxes, the city can take a long-term view of the issue of compensation. Furthermore, facilitating strategic private-sector investment can spur subsequent and adjacent investment that will strengthen the tax base and drive more activity and vibrancy to downtown.
The city has taken this same long-term approach as it pertains to the disposition of other obsolete public buildings. Three former fire stations were offered publicly several years ago. The results include the renovation and reuse of former Fire Station 3 on Sixth Street Southwest into offices of a local architectural firm, the reuse of former Fire Station 5 on 12th Street Northwest to house a local fraternal organization, and the use of former Fire Station 9 on 24th Street Northwest to facilitate the expansion of an adjacent business. The former Transportation Museum building in Wasena Park, vacant since the flood of 1985, is under contract for reuse as a bicycle sales and service business on the Roanoke River Greenway.
The terms and conditions of all of these conveyances reflect the delicate balance between short-term consideration and long-term benefit to the community. The Code of the Commonwealth of Virginia gives broad discretion to the city council regarding the disposition of public property. The discretion is not limited necessarily to the highest bid or offer, but can and should include broader public policy goals and objectives.
On Monday, the city council will hold a public hearing on a proposal to transfer to a local developer the former Public Health Department building on Eighth Street Southwest under a very similar performance and outcome-based contract as the former YMCA building agreement was structured. The council will again weigh the question of short-term consideration against the long-term community benefits that could be derived from the proper and prudent reuse of a 63-year-old public building; another opportunity for a former public building to serve generations to come.
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