BLACKSBURG — Amid concerns about Virginia Tech’s rapid enrollment growth, a nationwide developer of student housing is proposing to build an apartment building comprised of hundreds of bedrooms just north of the downtown.
Landmark Properties Inc., which is based out of Athens, Georgia, is requesting a rezoning for 5.5 acres on the 1000 block of North Main St. to allow for a four- to six-story structure comprised of off-campus apartments and 178,000 square feet of commercial space.
Located across the street from the YMCA, the property is currently zoned for residential and general commercial uses. The developer is asking to rezone the property to planned residential, a district builders often seek when proposing projects with high residential densities.
Landmark, which built The Retreat community off of Prices Fork Road, is proposing to build up to 825 bedrooms, or approximately 147 bedrooms per acre, according to project details.
The plans also include an integrated parking deck.
“I can’t really speak for the entire planning commission, but it’s a fascinating project in some ways,” commission Chairman Andrew Kassoff said. “It’s going to consume that entire block. It’s really indicative of what I think the town’s facing.”
The planning commission, which provides policy recommendations to town council, has already had some discussions on the Landmark proposal and plans to tackle the project in more depth over the next month.
Off-campus housing is often the subject of controversy in Blacksburg due, in part, to concerns from residents about sudden influxes of students impacting single-family neighborhoods.
The Landmark proposal also arrives as the town and Virginia Tech are grappling with higher than expected enrollment for the 2019 fall.
Tech anticipates its fall 2019 freshman class will be between 7,500 and 7,585, a range that breaks the previous record set in 2017 and exceeds a previous projection of about 6,600.
Several town council members have since openly voiced concerns about Blacksburg’s capacity to house and accommodate the new students.
Kassoff said he sees the development as one way to soften the effects of Tech’s rapid enrollment growth in the future.
“There’s got to be some easing on the whole system,” he said.
Kassoff said he believes the development’s placement is “pretty ideal.” The building would be within walking distance of campus and would include features such as one-to -one bike parking, or one bicycle spot per bedroom, he said.
Those features, Kassoff said, can help minimize vehicular traffic.
“I think it’s got a lot of good elements, nice elements to it,” he said.
Town Councilman John Bush, however, is less enthusiastic about the Landmark project as it stands.
One of Bush’s concerns is that the project would take up space truly intended for commercial developments. He said the town, if the rezoning is approved, would stand to lose meals, lodging and sales tax revenue often provided by commercial developments.
Bush said the sheer scope of the project would also disrupt that entire block.
“I think it’s too big for what’s there. There’s no context for it,” he said. “We’re still a small southern town … small-town people are resistant change, but they’re especially resistant to huge scale changes. It has to be done incrementally.”
Bush also doubts if any reductions of the project’s scope would be effective.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think I can tweak something that’s 80-foot tall and 900 beds.”
Contrary to Kassoff’s stance, Bush said he doesn’t see Tech’s recent enrollment issue as a strong reason to favor the Landmark project.
“We can be selective … We should approve the really good ones, the ones that make sense,” Bush said.
“We’ve approved a lot in the last five years. Just because Tech has this enrollment issue doesn’t mean we should start approving everything and anything.”
Landmark executives couldn’t be reached for comment.