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Redevelopment ideas for old Blacksburg Middle School edge closer to reality
[November 14, 2012]

Redevelopment ideas for old Blacksburg Middle School edge closer to reality

BLACKSBURG, Nov 14, 2012 (The Roanoke Times - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- The long-debated redevelopment of the old Blacksburg Middle School site perhaps edged a bit closer to reality Tuesday as town officials said a plan to build offices, a hotel and apartments is moving in the right direction.

But officials said they want more changes before they take up rezoning requests needed for the project.

"I'm happier," Town Councilwoman Susan Anderson said, "but not yet happy." Tuesday's session was a joint meeting of Blacksburg's town council and its planning commission, giving both bodies the chance to comment on a new version of a development proposal that ran into criticism at its unveiling last month.

Developers are trying to soothe objections before formally filing rezoning requests in December.

The 20-acre downtown site is owned by Montgomery County and its zoning is controlled by the town council. Its future has sparked disagreement for a decade, with the county hoping for revenue from the sale of the property and an ongoing stream of taxes from its development, and the town more willing to wait until just the right project comes along.

At a Monday school board budget forum where speaker after speaker lamented school funding woes, Montgomery County Supervisor Chris Tuck called on residents to help persuade the town council to approve the sale of the old middle school site to aid the county's finances.

But town officials sounded in no mood to hurry Tuesday, with Councilman John Bush saying, "We need to be more patient. ... And if we need to have competing proposals for this site, we need to have that." Town officials said their hopes are described in a master plan for the site that the town and county developed last year. The plan terms the property "one of the most important redevelopment sites" in Blacksburg or the county and called for a mix of residential and commercial uses, echoing earlier town plans.

Fiddler's Green Partners of Blacksburg and Continental Real Estate Cos., a national development company, last month presented a proposal that mixed new headquarters for the Blacksburg-based Modea advertising agency and Rackspace computing company with a hotel, restaurant and apartments, along with a public park and other facilities. The developers said they would spend up to $85 million on the project.

Town council members said the proposal lacked imagination and didn't fit with the neighborhoods around it.

On Tuesday, Jim Cowan of Fiddler's Green and Michael Fite and Frank Kass of Continental Real Estate outlined changes made since the proposal was first presented.

Among them were a new central open space that could be used for events; reconfiguring and enlarging a park; removing about 200 of the more than 1,700 parking spaces -- a change made by pulling parking decks back from Clay Street and generally decreasing pavement within the development; adding townhouses along Clay Street that could be homes for workers at businesses at the site, and adding another bike path. The developers said they would try to work in other suggested changes such as electric car-charging stations.

Besides the company headquarters, the development still includes a hotel, now sized at 112 rooms, a 40,000-square-foot fitness center, a restaurant and 244 residential units, most of them apartments.

Council members said they appreciated the changes but criticized the lack of single-family residences or housing designed for senior citizens.

"It looks more like a student housing complex than a downtown neighborhood," Councilman Michael Sutphin said.

Developers said the county's price for the property, $5.6million, made it too expensive for single-family homes and said their research had found no market for special senior housing. Council members argued with the second point, saying other studies -- and common sense -- showed a demand.

"Everybody I talk to ... says that's silly, seniors would move there," Councilwoman Leslie Hager-Smith said.

Kass countered that senior citizens could move into any of the housing he hoped to build and said he'd look again at making some units more appealing to older residents.

The developer responded to some of the council's specific points and said others could be ironed out as the town's approval process moved along.

"Give us a little break here," Kass said, grinning.

Citing decades of development experience, Kass said that some of the council's wishes, such as more retail space, just were not realistic.

"We're going to make this good ... but I'm not going to tell you we're going to put retail in places where no one wants to shop," he said, citing Clay Street as a residential area ill-suited to stores.

When council members said they didn't want stores on Clay Street, but space inside the development for shops that would cater to residents and hotel guests, Kass said that could be done if other features were moved around. "We will look into all possible uses," he promised.

Council members said they hoped developers will keep honing their design.

"I think we still have a long way to go," Anderson said.

Blacksburg sees itself as a role model for other communities, she added. "I think we can try to make this a premier project." ___ (c)2012 The Roanoke Times (Roanoke, Va.) Visit The Roanoke Times (Roanoke, Va.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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