In France, there’s the famous Bayeux Tapestry that visually tells the story of the Norman conquest of England in 1066. If Roanoke had such a piece of artwork, it would depict the Coming of the Railroad — and later the Going of the Railroad. In between, though, there’d be a section devoted to something that happened 40 years ago this year — a city planning process called Design ’79.
Yes, yes, we realize there’s nothing like the bureaucratic phrase “city planning process” to make eyes glaze over, but this was one that, quite literally, changed the direction of Roanoke and whose after-effects are still being felt four decades later. In a good way, too. Government isn’t always the problem. Here government was a very big part of the solution, which is just one of the many lessons to be learned all these years later from Design ’79. To understand Design ’79, we must rewind the clock to the 1960s. Downtown was still going great —until suddenly it wasn’t. The collapse of downtown, brought on by the rise of suburban shopping malls, came quickly. What had been a vibrant retail district just a few years earlier was by the mid-1970s a civic embarrassment. Downtown Roanoke was still the region’s business capital, except at night the business most visibly conducted on the City Market was prostitution and drugs. Arthur Taubman, then chairman of Advance Auto, declared in 1976: “I will not stand by and see a downtown cancer eat away at my town.” In the last 20 months, he said, “the degree of decline in downtown has accelerated to a frightening point.” He warned that “if we do nothing, in one or two years . . . we will see total decay.” Newspaper headlines from that era lamented “Little optimism about downtown.” The powers that be tried different things. They tried removing parking meters. They tried nighttime shopping. They tried organizing special events. Nothing worked. The forces remaking the American landscape seemed inexorable: Shoppers and businesses were fleeing downtowns for the suburbs and weren’t coming back. In one city after another — Roanoke wasn’t special in that regard — downtowns were left to rot. Nobody seemed to know what to do to save them; many felt they simply couldn’t be saved.
What was needed, of course, wasn’t minor modifications but a wholesale reinvention of what downtowns were about — but that was often a hard sell to people who only knew of downtown as one thing and couldn’t envision it as something else. Not everyone has “the vision thing.”
Conveniently, Roanoke’s downtown was bottoming out about the same time that, for legal reasons we’ll skip over here, the city had to elect all seven council members at once. The year 1976 was a rare opportunity for voters to reshape the entire council in one election. They did; a slate of business-backed candidates running under the banner of “Roanoke Forward” swept all seven seats. That council — led by Mayor Noel Taylor — set in motion the rebirth of downtown Roanoke. Of course, this wasn’t as simple as passing a single ordinance. This required something that governments often aren’t capable of: Sustaining an agenda over many years. But Roanoke did. The Roanoke Forward council pushed out the city manager and hired a dynamic young replacement — Bern Ewert. Ewert’s aggressive style didn’t always sit well with all but, by golly, he was enthusiastic, he was full of ideas and, more importantly, he got stuff done. If Roanoke were ever to replicate Richmond and create our own Monument Avenue to honor our own heroes, there ought to be a pedestal reserved for Ewert. Downtown Roanoke — indeed, all of Roanoke — would not be what it is today without him.
And that brings us to Design ’79. The process actually began in the fall of 1978. This was no tedious board room exercise. Ewert took the process to the people. WDBJ-TV hosted a series of television call-in programs where city planners took suggestions live on the air. Some of the ideas were, well, kind of crazy — like the caller who proposed putting a dome over downtown streets to protect people from the weather. One of the consultants “quickly sketched his concept of what domes would look like,” according to Roanoke Times news coverage at the time, and then discussed its (im)practicality. The downtown dome obviously didn’t happen but these innovative telethons — the Facebook Live of their day — had another effect: They built public support for doing something about downtown and made the public feel like they had a stake in the outcome.
Roanoke voters had a history of voting down bond issues; it had taken decades to get approval for what we know today as the Berglund Center. In November 1979, though, city voters passed a $15.5 million bond issue that included money for downtown renovations — new sidewalks, new lighting, new trees, upgrades to the stalls on the market, a re-do of Elmwood Park. The downtown that we know today came out of that.
Design ’79 led to downtown parking garages — a novelty at the time. It led to the Campbell Court transportation center, which made downtown a hub for all bus traffic. It spurred the valley’s disparate cultural groups to move in together under a single roof — today’s Center in the Square. It set in motion the creation of the Roanoke Regional Partnership, today the region’s lead economic development agency. Design ’79 led to a lot of things.
Roanoke’s downtown rebirth began with a big injection of government funds — some local, augmented by lots of federal grants. By some measures, some $50 million of public funding went into downtown in those early years. That did not come without controversy. Some complained that too much was being spent on downtown; some were skeptical that it would do any good. We don’t hear the latter anymore, but we still sometimes hear the former. The irony is that the big taxpayer investment in downtown was decades ago; the major changes now are the result of private investment — none of which would have happened if it hadn’t been for that original public investment. Sometimes government has to lead.
We now have people living downtown, and demand is so strong that developers are putting new buildings downtown — something that would have been inconceivable in 1979. Downtown Roanoke remains a work in progress, to be sure, but still represents a great success story. Sometimes change happens so slowly that we don’t recognize it, yet it happens nonetheless. In 2019, Roanoke, should pause to remember what downtown was like in 1979 and why it’s not like that anymore.