BLACKSBURG — The town is again stepping up its scrutiny of the stream of proposed apartment projects geared toward Virginia Tech students.
Town council reiterated that feeling recently when, on a 7-0 vote, it passed a resolution for it to be more selective whenever it receives requests for student housing projects.
“What we’re saying is we have done a good deal to address that, and that we are going to basically give extra scrutiny to any proposal that comes forward,” Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith said. “This is the kind of resolution that gives our staff support.”
With a population of roughly 44,000, much of which is made up of Virginia Tech students, recent projections by the university point to enrollment growth by the thousands in the coming years.
As a result, the town is in no shortage of apartment proposals targeted at Tech’s students, officials have said.
“It is extremely lucrative to build purpose-built student housing. It’s so lucrative that people will come in with these very large plans,” Hager-Smith said. “We have people expressing interest monthly.”
Blacksburg’s elected council, however, hardly ever rubber stamps apartment proposals.
Each time a developer steps forward with an ambitious plan, the town almost immediately hears from residents who voice concerns about these sizable projects worsening sprawl and impacting their quality of life.
“We want people to understand: We’re not feeling desperation,” Hager-Smith said.
The recent resolution comes on the heels of a downtown master plan that Blacksburg paid St. Louis-based Development Strategies $160,000 to put together.
The master plan divides the downtown into multiple sub-districts, each with their own set of encouraged projects.
For example, there is a district called “Downtown Northwest,” part of which the plan states is conducive to dense and upscale student housing due to high land costs.
Downtown Northwest covers the area immediately around Prices Fork Road and the North Main Street roundabout. A dense and upscale apartment complex called The Edge currently exists in that neighborhood and is located across the road from the Tech campus.
Blacksburg keeps a long-existent state-mandated Comprehensive Plan that recommends the future zoning for various tracts of land across town. The downtown master plan differs — or complements the Comprehensive Plan, some town officials say — in that it is specific about the type of real estate and activities suggested in the various sections of downtown.
Points emphasized in the recent student housing resolution include a call for town council to encourage redevelopment of older housing units in “student-oriented areas of town where supporting infrastructure is already available and fewer lifestyle conflicts with adjacent neighborhoods are likely to occur.”
Another point in the resolution is that student housing should include “significant square footage” dedicated to commercial and office uses. Specifically, that point states that student housing proposals downtown should be limited to the areas designated in the downtown master plan.
The resolution was passed just a few weeks after town council narrowly approved a rezoning for a 215-bedroom apartment building on Patrick Henry Drive between Progress and North Main streets.
That proposal, which belongs to local firm Green Valley Builders, received overwhelming opposition from residents in attendance on the night that the council passed the rezoning.
Council members who supported the project said the apartments would help control student sprawl in other residential neighborhoods. They also noted the fact that other apartment complexes exist in that area.
One key argument from opponents was that the Comprehensive Plan, for the exact tract of land Green Valley Builders is slated to develop, doesn’t recommend the zoning that the project requested.
Hager-Smith said recent proposals that town council approved had nothing to do with the new student housing resolution.
“We couldn’t have turned around a resolution like this on the heels of Patrick Henry,” she said. “What we are responding to is these proposals that are coming in. Builders of student housing are contacting our staff, like I said, monthly. This is really designed to help support them.”
Longtime builders of off-campus housing who were reached this week didn’t express massive support or opposition to the resolution.
Jeff Price, the owner of Price Williams Realty, which has primarily developed off-campus housing in Radford, said he understands wanting to drive students toward areas such as downtown Blacksburg, which he said is more conducive to dense apartment projects.
“In a way, I would be supportive of more downtown … redevelopment and having more students in a denser area downtown,” he said. “But I also think these other projects, at the right traffic locations, make sense, too. Tech is just growing and Blacksburg is having to deal with the growth of Virginia Tech. They have to find areas.”
Price said he has yet to build off-campus apartments in Blacksburg. However, he was part of a steering committee last summer that looked at the town’s future land use.
“What I would tell you is that out of those meetings, it was apparent that they were trying to focus on certain areas for dense development,” he said. “So it wouldn’t really sprawl out in the community.”
Price does own significant real estate in Blacksburg. One of his properties is Kent Square.
Jeanne Stosser, who built The Edge and is behind the potential redevelopment of the old Blacksburg Middle School site, said she hasn’t had a chance to dive into the some of the points driving the recent town council resolution. But she said there can be issues with attempts to restrict students to specific areas of town.
“Directives for student housing will drive ground prices and rents up and may not have the desired result. Outlying areas do become more desirable, increasing sprawl,” she wrote in a text message. “Density is great, but specifically setting aside parcels will be a costly undertaking for development.”