The long-awaited rezoning of the old town middle school site earlier this year paved the way for a more than $100 million development that is expected to further transform downtown Blacksburg.
Some local residents and environmental enthusiasts, however, have in recent weeks and months voiced fears about the site’s progress coming at the expense of some natural history.
The site’s redevelopers, Midtown Redevelopment Partners, are now being asked to try to fulfill one final plea: Find a way to preserve what some informally call the “great Oak Tree.”
The tree is located on the front end of the roughly 20-acre site, or the side facing South Main Street.
In addition to being a natural landmark, those familiar with the tree’s history say it was planted in 1976 to celebrate the country’s bicentennial.
“At the time that the old school was demolished, some students who had been at the middle school at that time launched a campaign to try to save the tree,” said Tom Howard, an emeritus professor who taught history at Virginia Tech. “It has increasingly become a kind of iconic tree in many ways.”
Howard recalls the local bicentennial celebration, which is when he said the tree was planted.
So, will the tree remain? The quick answer is no.
However, “As we’ve noted from the beginning, the oak tree will not remain, but we have promised [to] honor its role in our community,” Jim Cowan, Blacksburg attorney and Midtown partner, wrote in an email. “We are currently engaging with a couple different experts to plan how we can repurpose the tree in a meaningful way. We hope to make an announcement soon about our plans.”
As Midtown has publicized since it first submitted plans in 2017, the development calls for an ambitious mixture of commercial, residential and civic developments. The site will also include amenities such as a park and plaza.
The commercial portion of the development that is slated to go on the site’s front half is expected to feature some office buildings, a new town parking garage, a relocated police station and a hotel. The residences will be built on the site’s rear half.
Since the rezoning in May, a blue tarp fence has been set up around the site.
“We are progressing in the order agreed during the rezoning process,” Cowan wrote. “We are prepping the site for initial grading and will be getting the lot pads ready.”
Howard is still hopeful that the tree can be honored in some form.
“My take on it is it’s an iconic tree that maybe deserves more consideration than it has been given by those in charge,” he said. “It’s symbolic of the whole question of development and the preservation of what we have inherited from the past and from nature. Even if the tree comes down, maybe it can be turned into a kind of symbol of that sort.”
Another who is calling for the preservation of the tree is Alwyn Moss, a long-time Blacksburg resident, writer and environmental activist.
Moss couldn’t directly be reached for comment on this story, but she made a case for the oak tree in an opinion piece for The Roanoke Times less than two months ago.
Moss’ article spoke in length about how the natural environment can substantially contribute to the quality of life.
“The old middle school, when functioning, communicated a sense of joy as children came and went in and out of the buildings and played around trees and on the grassy hillside after or before school time,” reads an excerpt from her article. “Now the school buildings have been gone for more than fifteen years, but in their place Blacksburg residents, as well as visitors and students have been left with a gift …”
Moss continued by describing the views upon entering or leaving Blacksburg as a “visionary delight.” She mentioned the view of the Blue Ridge mountains in the far distance.
“After so many years this unexpectedly lovely sight has become familiar to many who live here,” she wrote. “The great oak tree is in itself a symbol, a banner for this university town …”
After commenting on the environmental benefits of preserving trees and grasslands, Moss ended her article by writing that the developers might be surprised at the gratitude and support they would receive if the oak tree and even some of the surrounding maples were preserved.