By William Skaff

Skaff is a retired director of policy analysis for a policy organization in Washington, D.C. He lives in Roanoke County.

Roanoke County officials are spinning the Carilion Clinic pediatric center at Tanglewood Mall as the result of the Reimagine 419 plan, consistent with its goal of town center density development and the elimination of the natural environment in this area. For instance, they say of the Carilion move that the plan will create density and density drives retail. Yet, here, exactly the opposite is true.

The Reimagine 419 Plan — proclaiming the supposed appeal of density development — had, in fact, nothing to do with Carilion’s decision to locate at the mall. News reports indicate that Blackwater Resources had contacted Carilion to locate at the mall immediately after the purchase several years ago — before there ever was a Plan. Negotiations began soon thereafter. Blackwater anticipated reviving the mall through mixed-use occupancy and complementary retail, not through residential density in the parking lot.

For Carilion, the choice was a business decision based on market dynamics. Carilion recognized that there was no pediatric center in this part of the state west of Charlottesville. As Carilion stated in its news release and elsewhere, the mall’s location and ample available parking primarily drove its decision.

Thus, if the Reimagine 419 plan were already implemented and the mall parking lot filled with a city — as some politicians demanded — we can be fairly certain that Carilion would not have decided to move there. Then 419’s economic future would be dependent on town center bars rather than health care.

Moreover, density of the Reimagine 419 variety will not be driving retail at Tanglewood, but the traditional market incentive of synergistic business occupancy. As Blackwater explains, they do anticipate that Carilion will attract new retail to the mall building itself, not to an exterior city that will surround the mall.

The pediatric center is not the beginning of the fulfillment of the density-obsessed Reimagine 419 plan, but rather a demonstration of how out of touch the plan really is. Traditional business development incentives brought about this revitalization. It would seem that the Reimagine 419 plan will need to be reimagined into something that accommodates market forces rather than trying to dictate them.

Customer traffic drives retail, not building density. In a mobile society, where people can go in a car wherever they want, density in itself is no guarantee of customer traffic. But a good anchor with complementary businesses is. As Virginia Tech Carilion impacts the 419 corridor, it will be important not to make the same planning mistake over and over again following a density ideology. Residential density will physically crowd out business growth along 419.

The Reimagine 419 plan was a product of Soviet-style central planning by the County — devising a plan for private properties and forcing it upon them. The pediatric center is a triumph of the free enterprise system. The project grew naturally out of economic need, not government mandate. Complementary businesses will eventually join the mall and its vicinity. But the needs of the residents of Roanoke County and vicinity, the prospective customers, will drive this, as gradually revealed over time.

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