BLACKSBURG — The town Planning Commission on Tuesday is slated to decide on whether to recommend a proposed development that is expected to give downtown its tallest building.
The planning commission will host a public hearing and then afterward vote on a project proposed by the Virginia Tech Foundation, the university’s charitable arm and a holder of various off-campus properties.
Named the Gilbert Street mixed-use project, the development calls for a 236,000-square-foot and five-story building to go on the existing retail site near the corner of Prices Fork Road and North Main Street.
The site includes the old Buffalo Wild Wings building, which will be demolished as part of the foundation’s project. Plans also call for the demolition of the building that currently houses a Five Guys restaurant and the Blacksburg Wine Lab.
The development is expected to provide space for a national retailer on the first floor, a rooftop restaurant and offices for Tech uses.
The project calls for 250 parking spaces to be established outdoors with a parking structure to also be part of the building.
The project prompted Blacksburg Town Council earlier this year to create a conditional use permitting process for developers interested in building structures that would surpass the 60-foot height limit in the town’s downtown commercial district.
The foundation still needs council approval on a permit to allow a building of up to 100 feet. Additionally, the project requires council approval on a handful of other requests.
The project calls for an amendment to the town Master Plan and a proffer statement that currently governs the property where the development would go. The development also calls for an amendment to the North End special signate district — for future tenant needs — and for a right-of-way vacation along Gilbert Street.
The project’s developer, the W.M. Jordan Company, provided town council with a briefing and update on the proposal this past week.
Some town council members consider the proposal to be among the most important ones in recent years due to the fact that it’s tied to the region’s economic engine and the potential effect its primary structure’s exceptional height could have on the look of downtown.
“This is so political,” Councilman John Bush said. “With the foundation it gets even tougher because they don’t pay the same kind of taxes that everybody else does” concerning commercial properties.
The state allows foundation-owned properties to not be taxed at 100%.
The issue has occasionally been debated over the years, but returned to the forefront earlier this year when the foundation unveiled the plans for the Gilbert Street project.
Blacksburg and, to a greater extent, Montgomery County have each raised concerns about the foundation building more commercial properties that pay less in taxes than other owners of private developments.
Bush said he’s also concerned about the prospect of a 100-foot building. He said he’s not sure if the town has properly planned for a project of such scope yet.
“We haven’t done any of that work to say what we want to say about them,” he said, adding that a 100-foot building downtown might be too big and too quick of a leap for the town. “What’s wrong with 75 or 85? One-hundred is really tall … I think before you really approve that, there needs to be some studies about what it means. I’m not convinced we necessarily have to take that jump with 100-foot buildings.”
Bush, however, said he doesn’t quite have a complete opinion yet on the project. He said on Wednesday that he hadn’t seen some of the latest updates due to the fact that he was absent from the most recent council work session in which the project was -0discussed.
The project has drawn some enthusiasm from Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith.
“I think it looks like a really sound project,” she said.
Hager-Smith said the development will complement the student housing the town has envisioned for that sector of downtown.
Hager-Smith said she doesn’t anticipate the view of the building to be as problematic as others say due to the site’s elevation, which she said drops off.
“The five levels may sound daunting,” she said. “But in elevation, this is one of the lowest spots in town … You’re putting a tall building in a low spot.”
Hager-Smith said she also believes local residents will appreciate the development’s retail and restaurant components. She also touted plans for some of the office use to have ties to the second Amazon headquarters in Northern Virginia.
“This is where they’re going to crank out the worker bees,” she said.
Hager-Smith said that part of the project addresses Amazon-related computer science functions. However, she said it’s unclear if it necessarily means classes.
Skip Smith, W.M. Jordan’s vice president of development, told council this past week that the building will have no classrooms.
“There are university offices; there are no classrooms,” he said.
The Tuesday planning commission meeting is scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m. inside the Blacksburg Municipal Building at 300 S. Main St.