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Lucas Thornton is seeking sites to build "bungalow court" housing, with one potential site being a Roanoke city-owned parking lot along Winchester Avenue.
Saturday, November 2, 2013
A Roanoke developer has designs on bringing a housing type to the valley that’s rare here, but residents of one proposed site for it — on city land that is part of Wasena Park — already are working to oppose it.
Lucas Thornton is seeking sites to build what he describes as bungalow courts — a group of smaller homes collected in a U-shape around a central court yard — with one potential site being a Roanoke city-owned parking lot along Winchester Avenue and adjacent to the Wasena Park softball fields.
He held a meeting recently with several residents along Winchester but said it didn’t go as well as he would have liked.
Two people who attended the meeting hope to quash the idea before it gets far.
“I just don’t think you should take public property for a private housing project,” said William Dowdy, who lives just across the street from the site. “It’ll just ruin that park. It’ll cut the access to hundreds of people who use it daily.”
Thornton stressed that his idea is only a concept at this point. “We’re in a really preliminary stage; we don’t have a project,” he said.
Roanoke City Manager Chris Morrill confirmed that Thornton has approached the city about the crescent-shaped city-owned land between Winchester and some railroad tracks, but there’s no formal proposal to buy or develop it.
Thornton, who has developed apartments in historic buildings in downtown Roanoke, said with his latest idea, he’s looking for where those downtown residents move to when they want to leave the city’s center.
What he has in mind is three buildings, along with a clubhouse building for the residents. Each of the buildings would be one and a half stories built in a U-shape with the open end of the courtyards along Winchester.
Architecturally, they’d be in an Arts-and-Crafts bungalow style, because that’s a style that’s common in the Wasena neighborhood, Thornton said. It’s important that a development be of appropriate size, scale and style for the neighborhood, wherever that is, he said.
“I’m never interested in building a big shiny glass building in a neighborhood,” he said.
The courtyard type of development, while common in some places, has only one example in the valley: the Wiley Court development in Salem’s Langhorne Place neighborhood, next to the Salem Municipal Golf Course. Built just after World War II, it features eight small, white houses built in a horseshoe around a large green area.
Thornton’s idea differs in that the residences would be attached, not free-standing homes, but the idea of shared, common space is the same. He’s also looking for sites in Raleigh Court, Old Southwest and perhaps other areas.
He picked the site on Winchester because he thinks Wasena is a great neighborhood, and there’s already development going on nearby with the Riverhouse apartments in the old ice plant, with a restaurant and rock climbing facility in it, and the plans for a bike shop and restaurant in the building once occupied by the Virginia Museum of Transportation.
Morrill noted that with enough residents in the area, it could foster “a real commercial district” along nearby Main Street.
“If I’m part of that community, I’m really excited about it,” Thornton said.
Dowdy, the Winchester resident, said he has no problem with developing park land. He’s excited about the bike shop and restaurant coming in.
“I’m all for development, especially in the Wasena area,” he said.
But he and some neighbors don’t want to see the parking lot Thornton is eyeing developed.
Besides his view of the park being destroyed, “we need that parking lot,” he said. “That routinely overflows. You have a charity walk or something and people will be parking on the street.”
“I just find it offensive that a developer could buy public property in a highly used public park,” said Dana James, another Winchester resident. “I think it would destroy it for the whole community.”
Thornton said he can develop the parking lot in a way that preserves mature trees on the land and ultimately increases the parking available by 50 percent over the 118 spaces in the lot, though they would be shared by his residents and park users.
“Nobody wants to go in and fight for a space in an apartment complex,” Dowdy said.
Dowdy said he and his neighbors who oppose the plan intend to alert others to it and campaign against it.
Morrill gave Thornton credit for seeking the neighbors’ thoughts early, and in perhaps taking a risk in bringing a new housing type to Roanoke.
Thornton said while his first meeting with Dowdy and others was disappointing, he wants more input from those who live nearby. He invites anyone to share their thoughts through his company’s website: www.histrepartners.com.
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