The city lists it as a “development opportunity.”
Neighborhood and preservation advocates call the nearly 200-year-old caretaker’s cottage in Roanoke’s Fishburn Park a piece of publicly held history to be preserved, restored and treasured.
The house along Brambleton Avenue, along with 1.4 acres surrounding it, has been listed for sale on the city’s economic development department web page since late last year.
It’s one of three historic structures the city owns and is attempting to find someone to utilize. The others are the circa-1830s Compton-Bateman House in Villa Heights Park and the city’s original Fire Station No. 1 in downtown.
The city currently is considering six proposals for the fire station and two for the Villa Heights house.
The three are considered surplus city properties. But while the city’s economic development department is seeking proposals for their re-use, city leaders say the listings are more about finding a party and a means to preserve important buildings which the city has neither a use for nor the financial wherewithal to restore .
Each presents different challenges of condition, size, location and potential uses.
“You don’t want them to sit empty and fall down,” said Councilman David Trinkle. “By putting them on the market, we’re trying to elicit some unique ideas from the community, basically.”
Leasing is one option. But a private owner can harness historic rehabilitation tax credits and bring investment that the city can’t afford.
Preservationists argue the city should retain ownership in some cases, and impose stringent restrictions on future owners should historic buildings be sold.
“They don’t own these historic buildings for the purpose of making money off of them,” said Alison Blanton, an architectural historian and president of the Roanoke Valley Preservation Foundation. “Their first and foremost responsibility should be to make sure these buildings survive as remnants of our early history.”
The differences raise questions about responsible stewardship of publicly owned historic structures. How much taxpayer money should be invested in maintenance and rehabilitation? Should cities retain ownership to ensure their protection from what private owners might do?
City leaders argue that sometimes a historic building’s best chance for recovery is to put it in private hands.
Keeping buildings might be ideal when practical, City Councilman John Garland said.
“The next best thing is to find somebody who can make a project sustainable and you put enough restrictions on it that they can’t just go in there and do what they want to do,” Garland said. “That would be the goal … for all of these.”
The caretaker’s cottage
It was Garland who triggered the listing of the Fishburn Park property last year.
He’s familiar with the 1820s structure — a 1,000-square-foot log cabin wrapped in a clapboard exterior — from a free study of it he did as head of Spectrum Design six years ago.
“The total motivation was to save the house, not to fund some developer’s opportunity,” Garland said.
Along with what it calls the caretaker’s cottage, the city included in the listing 1.4 acres around it, including frontage along Brambleton Avenue.
“We thought that somebody might want to come in and build some other houses,” Roanoke Economic Development Director Wayne Bowers said.
When Grandin Court Neighborhood Association President Freeda Cathcart saw the listing, she sounded an alarm to the park’s neighbors. She lives just one door away from the park herself.
Cathcart was twice angered: That the city would sell off park land and historic property without consulting the neighborhood, and that the city had just spent $280,000 for a new picnic shelter and restrooms in the park but declined to spend any money on the cottage.
She had already invested her own time in preserving the property, pushing the city for federal Community Development Block Grant funds a few years ago to pay to re-roof the building, she said. She also said she donated needed materials.
“I see it as preserving it in stages,” Cathcart said. “We have the roof on, and that’s going to buy us some time. Getting the exterior preserved is going to buy more time.”
She envisions the building having long-term use as a hub of activity in the neighborhood, with the porch of the house serving as a stage for musicians and food trucks parked nearby.
The city spending money in the park and not making use of the house was a missed opportunity in Cathcart’s view.
From the city’s perspective, the house lacks a public use and the city lacks funding for its restoration.
Garland’s study found rotten timbers supporting the structure . Electrical, plumbing and mechanical systems would need replacement, and then there are cosmetic concerns.
It’s unclear how long it’s been since the cabin was home to the Blackwell family, whose patriarch, George Blackwell, was a caretaker for the park.
“It’s a miracle that it’s there at all,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of tender loving care.”
He estimates it would take $175,000 or more to rehabilitate the cottage.
A private buyer, however, could take advantage of historic tax credits that could make the renovation cost more palatable, he said. He’s done numerous tax credit-fueled historic restorations himself.
“I was trying to find someone who would be like-minded — someone who could fall in love with that house and have some idea of what to do with it,” he said.
Councilman Bill Bestpitch suggested that Cathcart and her organization find a solution.
“If the neighborhood is really interested in pursuing and doing something with that, why don’t they come up with a business plan for raising some money?” he asked.
Cathcart said she knows of benefactors who would contribute and organizations who would raise money. But they don’t trust the city given how communication around the building has proceeded so far.
She mentioned that the city has already demolished another historic structure in the park, the Depression-era stone restroom building by Murray Run creek.
“At the very least at this point I want them to take it off the market and send a clear signal that they’ll support a fundraising effort,” she said.
The city is not exactly sifting through proposals for the listing, however.
Garland acknowledged that someone interested in building new houses on the vacant land in the park might be turned off by also having to take on a historic restoration.
It’s also not the first time the property has been offered for sale. Assistant City Manager Brian Townsend said the cottage and land was listed several years ago.
In all that time, no one has made a proposal for it.
And every city leader interviewed stressed that they aren’t looking for just any proposal.
The Villa Heights house
Corbin Prydwen, who has built a reputation on revitalizing the West End neighborhood by flipping blighted houses there, found out last year that the city isn’t an easy sell.
His offer for the Compton-Bateman House in Villa Heights Park last year was rejected.
The building, once a community center in its northwest Roanoke neighborhood, burned in 2011.
Prydwen revised and resubmitted his offer, and the city is considering it, along with a second proposal. Neither the city nor Prydwen would specify the proposed use, other than to confirm it’s residential.
But Prydwen said the city requires any developer to clear numerous hurdles to win approval.
“There’s a lot that they’re asking for,” he said. The list includes details on financing, proof he has the capability to handle the restoration, details on how it would be restored and a business plan for its use.
Prydwen said requirements specifically demand preservation of the building exterior, compliance with department of historic resources restoration standards, and evidence that the building’s use will be beneficial to the city and the neighborhood.
“We’re really asking for the same thing that me as a private developer would do to make sure the plan is feasible,” Garland said.
Requiring detailed and rigorously vetted proposals is how the city practices good stewardship of a historic property, even as it relinquishes control, city leaders said.
“There is no way we are going to lease or sell any of these buildings without some clear restrictions on what the buyer can do with them,” Bestpitch said.
“We’ve turned down some things that we just didn’t think fit with certain properties,” Trinkle said. “Because we’re looking for a win-win, there are a lot of hoops people have to jump through.”
If Prydwen’s proposal is approved, he still faces a massive challenge .
The circa-1835 house is in rough shape. Constructed as an early, opulent residence in the area, it was given to the city in the 1950s. The city used the building as part of the Villa Heights Park until 1999.
It’s been vacant since then, and has attracted little interest. In part, those familiar with the house say, potential buyers might shy away because it’s in a low-income residential neighborhood, which limits appropriate uses.
The 2011 fire destroyed much of the roof. Since then, it has been open to the elements, with no tarp or other covering over the destroyed section.
“In my opinion the water damage from them not tarping it is more significant than the fire damage,” Prydwen said.
Blanton, the preservationist, said her foundation asked the city to put a tarp over the house. As a renovation project, she said, it was “questionably viable back then, and now it’s even harder.”
Garland and Trinkle agreed the house should have been better protected.
Economic director Bowers and Townsend both said so much of the roof was destroyed that there was nothing left for attaching a tarp, and constructing a frame was too expensive.
But because of the fire, the city is holding on to $230,000 in insurance money that could be passed on to someone who renovates the house, once the work is done.
Fire Station No. 1
Fire station No. 1 stands in the best shape, has the most potential value and the most suitors of all the historic sites on the city’s list.
But the iconic brick building on Church Avenue near the City Market comes with its own challenges.
In 2011, California-based brewer Sierra Nevada gave the firehouse a long look as part of its consideration of Roanoke for its East Coast expansion that ultimately landed in Asheville, North Carolina.
When Oregon’s Deschutes Brewery began looking for an East Coast site, they used the same site consultant as Sierra Nevada, Bowers said. That consultant led them to Roanoke, and to the firehouse.
Up until the end of its deliberations about Roanoke, Bowers said, Deschutes had designs on opening a restaurant in the station. They ultimately decided to consolidate all operations at their brewery.
Since then, the city has sought proposals for the building. By the Feb. 1 deadline, Bowers said, a half dozen came in.
But the prospect of selling the firehouse causes some heartburn for city council members. Some, including Trinkle, would feel more comfortable with a long-term lease of the building.
“It’s a very historic building, it’s a community asset, it’s got meaning behind it,” Trinkle said. “The city and city council need to be really careful about, we may not want to sell it and lose control.”
The drawback to that approach is the enhanced difficulty the tenant would encounter trying to tap into favorable tax credits.
“You can’t lease and use tax credits. It becomes too difficult,” said Garland, a veteran of using historic tax credits.
The six proposals, which the council will review in the coming weeks, include both offers to buy and to lease the building, Bowers said.
Council members are also sensitive to the use of the firehouse.
“If we already have a large number of a certain type of establishment in the market area, do we really need to make a deal for someone to just bring us more of the same?” Bestpitch asked.
Trinkle is wary of the city offering terms that look like it is interfering in the free market.
“We don’t want to look like we’re subsidizing a business that would compete with other businesses,” he said.
At the same time, it may be possible to structure a lease that’s inexpensive to a tenant but still fair, in part because the tenant would be renovating the firehouse under strict historic preservation guidelines.
Blanton, of the preservation foundation, advocates a method of protecting a building’s historic elements in perpetuity that the city has never used, but which those interviewed for this story expressed receptivity.
Blanton wants to see the city adopt use of historic preservation easements — voluntary legal agreements that permanently protect historic properties as part of the chain of title.
An easement can be tailored to the structure, barring not only demolition, but also requiring the preservation of certain architectural elements or historic aspects.
An easement is then transferred to and held by an organization charged with enforcement of the restrictions. Blanton said in Virginia that’s typically the state Department of Historic Resources.
The downside is that such binding restrictions can turn off buyers and diminish a property’s marketplace value.
“But I feel like the city owes that to their citizens to protect these buildings,” Blanton said. “Their responsibility to be good stewards of it outweighs the potential devaluation of the properties.”
Bowers, Trinkle and Garland agreed preservation easements should be one tool in the city’s toolbox of stewardship of historic properties.
Bowers said the option might be particularly useful with the Fire Station No. 1.
Blanton said the city needs to go a step further, though, and develop a plan and a means of maintaining and preserving its historic properties.
As it stands, that responsibility is dispersed among city departments, she noted.
For example, a historic house might be on land maintained by the parks and recreation department, but the structure itself is maintained by the facilities management department, while being marketed by the economic development department.
“They’re always going to be the stepchildren of whatever department is handling them,” she said.
Trinkle agreed the city needs to be forward looking as more historic properties fall into the surplus category. The city’s long-term fire department plan includes moving operations out of some firehouses that are historic structures.
The city should do a better job of maintenance than in the past, he said, and of thinking ahead.
“We need to do a good job of, before we close things, figure out what the next purpose of it is,” he said.