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The entrance to the Roanoke Higher Education Center on Centre Avenue. The center is seeking a city-owned parking lot across from the entrance on which to build a new plaza.

Acknowledging objections of Gainsboro residents, the Roanoke City Council on Monday delayed the proposed sale of city land in Gainsboro to the Roanoke Higher Education Center to create a plaza at the school.

The council voted unanimously to delay action on selling the land, which is currently part of a city-owned parking lot on Centre Avenue across from the entrance to the Higher Education Center, until Dec. 16.

Because the measure involves selling public land, it requires the support of at least six of the council’s seven members. Multiple members clearly had reservations, at least at this point.

The council’s hope is that the higher education center and neighborhood residents can come to an agreement about the proposal.

Led by state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, chairman of the center’s board, the center hopes to buy about one-third of an acre of the parking lot to create a plaza and walkway. The plaza would establish a campus-like atmosphere, and would honor storied civil rights attorney Oliver Hill and other civil rights leaders, Edwards said. The state already has appropriated more than $300,000 for the project.

But Gainsboro residents and leaders of two organizations there objected to the plan coming this far without their input.

That gave pause to some council members.

“We certainly are not at a point tonight to say we have a plan in place that is going to be one that is held to a standard that is helpful to the community,” Councilwoman Anita Price said.

“I think it would be really egregious for me to make a decision on the property until the public has been engaged and all parties have been satisfied,” said Councilwoman Trish White-Boyd.

Edwards said the project had been under development for a year. “This would be a real addition to Gainsboro,” he said. “The community can use it anytime it wants.”

But Cecile Newcomb, representing the Historic Gainsboro Preservation District, said her organization knew almost nothing of it until very recently.

She asked that her organization and another, the Gainsboro Southwest Neighborhood Organization, be consulted on the project.

“I really think you need to be careful in deciding who you’re going to honor with whatever you’re going to do ... It just really needs to be done sensitively,” Newcomb said.

Others had no use for the project at all, saying it smacks of one more example of government deciding what to do in a black neighborhood without considering the neighborhood.

“This is not about a courtyard, this is not about honoring black people,” said civil rights activist Martin Jeffrey. “The best way to honor them is to leave Gainsboro alone.”

He suggested the best way to honor Hill is to take the money for the plaza and use it for scholarships for minority students to go to school at the higher education center.

Kevin McNeil, pastor of Bethany Christian Church, said making the plaza commemorate Hill is just using Hill as “your prize race horse to get to the finish line you want.”

Though the council’s vote was unanimous, not all council members object to the plaza in principle.

Councilman Bill Bestpitch said he was trying to understand “how building a plaza takes anything away or hurts anybody.”

Though some made comparisons to urban renewal, the 20th-century policy under which local governments including Roanoke declared black neighborhoods blighted and leveled them for redevelopment, Bestpitch said that comparison doesn’t quite fit, because no private homes or business are being taken or destroyed.

“This is a parking lot, folks,” he said. “Improving a parking lot to something that looks more like a campus is not a bad idea.”

Roanoke Times staff writer Henri Gendreau contributed to this report.

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Matt Chittum covers Roanoke City. A Roanoke native, he’s been at the Roanoke Times for more than two decades, having overcome an inauspicious start with a part-time clerical job.

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