The Roanoke City Council approved two land transactions Tuesday night to allow construction of a new open air bus station on Salem Avenue and Third Street despite the objections of neighbors who called the station a “crime magnet” that would undercut the area’s safety.
The council voted 6-0 on both measures, with Councilwoman Michelle Davis abstaining because she has a business relationship with a developer involved in the project.
The vote moves forward a process that will likely take years but, according to city officials, solve multiple issues: providing a new and improved bus station to replace a dated and unpleasant one, a needed passenger train station, and redevelop a large, underused parcel in the center of downtown.
Residents and business owners along Salem Avenue near the station, however, vociferously opposed moving the bus station to their neighborhood — largely based on their experiences and research about the existing Campbell Court station, and on concerns for the adjacent Virginia Museum of Transportation.
“It’s the epicenter of crime downtown,” said developer Bill Chapman, who redeveloped warehouses near the station site into loft apartments and homes for Beamer’s 25 restaurant and Big Lick Brewing.
The council held two public hearings on two parts of a three-way land transaction that includes acquiring a parking lot at Salem Avenue and Third Street for the new bus terminal.
Fourteen people spoke in opposition to the new location for the bus station at the public hearings — out of a crowd of about 150 who enthusiastically supported the speakers. Many held signs showing a magnet attracting a hypodermic needle, a silhouette of a thief and a fist, with a circle and line crossing it out.
Council members afterward reacted strongly to the negative comments, and cited the need for a safe, clean bus terminal in downtown. Mayor Sherman Lea cited the many working people who use the bus system to get to their jobs.
Councilwoman Djuna Osborne sharply called out the use of the phrase “that element” by a speaker to describe people who use the bus station.
The three-way deal begins with the city buying the approximately 1.7-acre parking lot on the northwest side of Third Street and Salem Avenue for $2.19 million. That land will be traded to the Greater Roanoke Transit Authority, which will develop a new open air bus terminal on the site.
In return, the city will get Campbell Court, which it will in turn trade to development company Hist:Re for the Marsh & McLennan insurance office building at the corner of South Jefferson Street and Norfolk Avenue. The city will convert the first floor of that building to a train station.
Hist:Re Partners, led by Lucas Thornton and Court Rosen, will demolish Campbell Court and build two new residential, office and commercial buildings separated by a new street between Campbell and Salem Avenues — a $25 million project.
Hist:Re is providing $500,000 to help fund set up of a temporary bus station on the site where the new one will go.
The city is providing Hist:Re $5.5 million in cash and tax rebate incentives for its project.
Opponents described the existing Campbell Court as scary and crime infested.
Chapman and Matt Prescott, a property owner on Salem Avenue, both cited crime statistics Chapman said he obtained from the city that showed 270 calls to 911 for Campbell Court in 2018, 170 of them for crimes. The data showed 29 arrests at the location, Chapman said.
“It’s a crime magnet,” Chapman said. “It has no place downtown. It has no place near West Station.”
Prescott cited the resurgence along that stretch of Salem Avenue.
“This idea is going to stop that in its tracks. It’s going to bring crime in,” he said.
Prescott proposed looking at industrial areas for the bus station, away from where people live.
“If the bus station moves to this area, the area will no longer be safe,” said Sabina Thaler, who described herself as resident of the area and a young professional. She wouldn’t feel safe walking her dog, because she doesn’t feel safe walking past Campbell Court now, sometimes even during the day.
“It’s going to be directly across the street from a martial arts facility with moms and children,” said Dennis Hayes, co-owner of Hybrid Martial Arts, directly across the street from the site.
Tom Cox spoke on behalf of the Virginia Museum of Transportation, which is adjacent to the parking lot. The bus station would present a range of problems for the museum, which he said had bolstered its annual attendance to 50,000, making it the largest destination attraction in Roanoke.
The museum would lose use of the parking lot, which it has depended upon for overflow parking and to host special events.
Cox also cited safety concerns which could demand the museum install security systems and lighting, and might cost the museum visitors if it’s perceived as in an unsafe place.
Another speaker asked why the city turned to the parking lot for its bus station when it was dismissed by a study commissioned by the city to identify sites for a multimodal station that would serve both bus and Amtrak rail passengers.
City leaders have said they moved away from the multimodal concept because train arrival and departure times don’t at all align with bus service, and there’s no site available for such a facility.
The parking lot adjacent to the train platform between First and Jefferson Streets would be ideal, but the owner wants a price that makes it unfeasible, city officials said.