BLACKSBURG — The Blacksburg Town Council late Tuesday approved the rezoning needed for the long-awaited redevelopment of the old Blacksburg Middle School site.
The rezoning, which passed on a 7-0 vote, marks a major step for the undeveloped 21-acre downtown site that has remained vacant since the school closed in 2002.
“I’m happy we’re finally here,” Councilwoman Susan Mattingly, who’s also the executive director of Lyric Theatre, said before voting. “What we need is more people to be downtown. … I’m really optimistic that this will improve our vibrancy.”
Several proposals for the site have been presented over the years, but all fell through due, in part, to disagreements between the local governing bodies .
Then, during the fall of 2017, Midtown Redevelopment Partners — a firm consisting of local developer Jeanne Stosser and Blacksburg attorney Jim Cowan — submitted an ambitious plan to transform the site into a mix of commercial and residential properties. The plan required splitting the site into two new zoning designations, 10.5 acres to downtown commercial and 10.5 acres to planned residential, the latter often used for developments with high residential densities.
Midtown Redevelopment Partners’ project, with a price tag expected to exceed $100 million, includes a hotel and commercial buildings on the property bordering South Main Street. Behind that will be residences such as townhomes and condominiums.
The project also includes a park on the site’s rear and a plaza at the corner of South Main and Eheart streets.
“We’re excited for the opportunity to move forward,” Cowan said after the vote.
Cowan said a hotel company has already expressed interest in the site and a readiness to operate . He declined to name the company.
In addition to the rezoning, the project required the separate approval of a so-called development agreement between Blacksburg and Midtown Redevelopment Partners.
That agreement, also approved by town council 7-0, is key to the site’s development, as it dictates which parts of the property the town will develop, finance and own.
The development agreement required a minimum of six supportive votes due to the fact that the deal includes a land swap between Blacksburg and Midtown Redevelopment Partners.
The land the town received under the development agreement will be used for a new police station and parking garage.
The parking garage, once a key sticking point between Blacksburg and Midtown Redevelopment Partners, is expected to cost $9.1 million, an amount that the town will pay off over the years with tax revenue from the site itself.
The town plans to establish a special services district for the entire property to help pay for the parking garage. That would mean property owners — of either commercial or residential real estate built on the site — would pay as much as 20 cents more in a real estate tax rate until the parking garage is paid off.
The 20 cents that would be tied to the special services district will be added to the 26-cent rate that all Blacksburg property owners currently pay.
In addition to real estate, revenue from meals and lodging taxes on the site will contribute to the payment of the parking garage.
The town has already started putting money aside for the police station and has so far budgeted $16.5 million for that project.
While the rezoning cleared council, some council members over the past several weeks had voiced concerns about Midtown Redevelopment Partners’ proposal not immediately providing the level of detail usually expected with projects of such scope.
“The fact that we’re not shown of any elevations of any buildings … gives me some concern as a design architect and somebody who wants to make sure the development out there is attractive and integral to the site,” Councilman John Bush said before Tuesday night’s meeting. “We don’t have a single building that we know what it’s going to be. Not a hotel, not a front building, not a residential structure.”
Bush said it’s for those reasons that the rezoning requires Midtown Redevelopment Partners to submit the development’s separate parcels to further design review. That means when Midtown Redevelopment Partners is ready to move forward on the hotel, the council will need to review that structure’s specific plans, he said.
Midtown Redevelopment Partners attorney Jeff Geiger said that lack of early detail is due to the developers wanting to accommodate the buildings’ eventual users.
The site “needs flexibility to design buildings around what users demand,” Geiger said.
Midtown’s plan received a mixture of support and opposition from those who attended Tuesday’s town council meeting.
Supporters touted the project as a way to boost vibrancy and foot traffic in downtown Blacksburg.
“This move will send us into the next phase of what Blacksburg will become in our future,” Blacksburg resident Mark Bennett told council. “This is an outstanding plan. I applaud you guys for making this a reality.”
Opponents voiced concerns over the project’s impact on traffic. Others questioned whether the plan had been subject to sufficient public review.
Resident Sofia Midkiff questioned the debt the town plans to take on to pay for the parking garage over a period of nearly 20 years.
“A lot of things can happen in that 20 years,” she said, referring to potential economic downturns. “Who’s going to pay for that?”