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Three development proposals could bring the most significant changes to the town’s housing market in years, observers say, and seem bellwethers for the next chapter of the town's growth.
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
An artist rendering shows University City Center.
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
Beth Obenshain walks on her family farm off Prices Fork Road in Blacksburg. Obenshain is pointing toward a 40-acre road front parcel of the property (background) that Landmark Properties of Athens, Ga., wants to develop for student housing.
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
Shivon Dosky (left) and Kirk Johnson are owners of the Holiday Inn and Latitudes International Grille and Attitudes Bar & Cafe. They also have plans to develop University City Center on Prices Fork Road in Blacksburg.
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
Sandra Reeve and Earlie Whittaker stand outside the Blacksburg Estates mobile home they share in Blacksburg. Whittaker said the neighbors have grown into a close community.
Sunday, October 6, 2013
BLACKSBURG — One would be a village of cottages on Prices Fork Road, close-set but more spread out than a standard apartment complex. Intended for Virginia Tech students, it would add 852 bedrooms to Blacksburg’s rental market.
Another would be the densest housing in town, a five-story, 495-bedroom apartment building with an attached parking deck. It would be just more than a mile down busy Prices Fork Road and also aimed at students.
And a third would transform the last of what once was a row of mobile home parks on Givens Lane into a neighborhood of single-family homes and town houses. Residents and their mobile homes would be relocated within the property during the first phase of development, but later phases would push them out.
Taken together, three development proposals that are making their way through Blacksburg’s approval process could bring the most significant changes to the town’s housing market in years, observers say. In a community where issues of sprawl, affordability and town-gown relations are perpetual, the town council’s eventual decisions on The Retreat, University City Center and Blacksburg Estates seem bellwethers for the next chapter of Blacksburg’s growth.
Once scheduled to arrive at the council simultaneously, the three projects are now set for votes over several months. A council decision on the zoning changes needed for University City Center is set for Tuesday, and for The Retreat on Nov. 12. A planning commission hearing on Blacksburg Estates is slated for next month, and a council vote may follow in December.
In the meantime, there has been no shortage of discussion.
“We really don’t need more luxury student housing,” planning commission Chairwoman Gregg Moneyhun said at a hearing on The Retreat last month — just before she voted to recommend approving the project. If new developments like The Retreat come in, “Maybe we would have more low-income, lower-income and affordable housing become available to families. … Maybe we’d have more redevelopment,” Moneyhun reasoned.
“The argument we’re in dire need of more student housing isn’t true,” insisted April DeMotts, who has been outspoken about the three proposals as she runs for a council seat in next month’s elections.
“A community builds from its strengths,” said developer Bill Ellenbogen, a veteran of the town’s business life who is not directly involved in the three proposals. “The strength of our town is the university. And it seems like the town is in denial: The town wants the university, but not the students.”
‘Crossroads of commerce and campus’
When Kirk Johnson was a Tech student in the 1980s, he lived in a rental home on Harrell Street “because I wanted to be close” to campus and downtown, he said.
For years, the town encouraged large, student-oriented apartment complexes in areas west, north and south of downtown, away from campus and the older neighborhoods. This contributed to long lines of traffic as students drove to and from classes. It also prompted conflict in the central neighborhoods as landlords converted houses to rental units aimed at the student market.
Now Johnson is director of rental programs at CIBHM, the Haymarket-based company that runs the Holiday Inn on University City Boulevard. He wants to build the sort of student housing where he’d like to have lived himself — something for students who “want to be as close to campus as they can get it without being on it,” he said.
The proposed University City Center would be constructed next to the Holiday Inn. What is now the Latitudes lounge would be torn down and its space, along with much of what is now an adjacent parking lot, would be replaced with a combination apartment building and parking deck, all arranged around a courtyard with a swimming pool.
Later renovations to the Holiday Inn — not part of the University City Center proposal — would convert it into two small hotels and an array of commercial space, all just across Prices Fork Road from the university.
“We tried to design a project that would be almost a miniature town center,” Johnson said. “We’re at the crossroads of commerce and campus.”
Some neighbors, including the New River Valley Community Services Board and Mountain Empire Services of the Southwest, have protested that University City Center would add too much traffic to the area, especially to a shared parking lot access from University City Boulevard.
Town officials have faulted CIBHM for not providing enough detail about University City Center or the possible subsequent development. At a council work session, Mayor Ron Rordam noted that the town’s Comprehensive Plan calls for retail growth, crucial to the town’s tax base, around University City Mall. It might be best not to take up that area with housing, he said.
“When that retail space is gone, it’s gone,” Rordam said.
Planning commission member Don Langrehr, a longtime advocate of clustered development, said he liked the idea of having more students living within walking distance of campus. But developers “weren’t showing us exactly what they were going to do” with the overall project, he said.
Langrehr voted against University City Center, but a majority of planners approved a recommendation that the town council approve the project.
Councilwoman Krisha Chachra, who is running for re-election next month, said the apartments could help people not connected to Tech.
“Because we have such a gap in affordable housing, this could be attractive to people besides students,” Chachra said at a council work session.
Johnson said he has tried to provide more details to the town and to resolve neighbors’ worries. He noted that the University City Center proposal is just the latest step in a progression that started when CIBHM acquired the Holiday Inn in 2007.
First the company spent about $2 million converting part of the hotel into about 40 condominiums that were mostly sold to out-of-town Hokie fans who wanted quarters during home games. The recession slowed CIBHM’s plans, but in 2010 the company spent about $3 million renovating the hotel, Johnson said.
The University City Center plan arose because CIBHM sees “a definite under-supply of student housing” in Blacksburg, Johnson said. He said that his research puts the town’s occupancy rate for what CIBHM considers student housing at about 99 percent.
If the town council says no to University City Center, CIBHM will explore other possibilities for the site that would not require zoning changes.
“We’re going to redevelop the property,” Johnson said.
‘The closest large acreage’
Beth Obenshain remembered her parents’ amazement decades ago when a strip of their farm was taken for the building of sidewalks along Prices Fork Road. “No one is ever going to walk on sidewalks this far out of town,” she recalled them saying.
Now the Obenshains’ Oaknoll Farm — at least its Prices Fork Road frontage, located just more than a mile west of the University City Center site — feels well within town limits. Prices Fork Road has four travel lanes. The Oak Manor Townhomes neighborhood is across the street, and behind it a shopping center and the sprawling Foxridge apartment complex.
In March, Obenshain, a former Roanoke Times editor and former executive director of the New River Land Trust, announced that she and a dozen other relatives who share ownership of the farm had decided to sell part of it to Landmark Properties, an Athens, Ga.-based developer of student housing complexes. Landmark hoped to build The Retreat, a cottage-style of development it either has constructed or is building in 14 other communities across the country.
“If you’re going to have a large, more vibrant college town, unfortunately, the development has to go [on],” Obenshain said recently. “This is the closest large acreage to the Virginia Tech campus.”
As with University City Center, Landmark’s proposal for 210 cottages ran into flak from neighbors who worried it would bring too much traffic. Students would drive instead of using buses, or would jaywalk across busy Prices Fork Road, opponents said at meetings.
Though town staff and Landmark’s engineers explained that traffic study formulas had accounted for this fall’s opening of a new Blacksburg High School just up Prices Fork Road — and concluded that the road had plenty of capacity — Oak Manor residents called for additional counts. On the first day of school last month, anti-Retreat signs lined Prices Fork Road.
To counter Landmark’s assertions about on-site management and to fan fears of disruptive students, opponents emailed council members with links to YouTube videos of rowdy spring-break-style beer parties at Retreat developments in other college towns.
Sam Albimino, a member of the board of directors for Oak Manor’s homeowners association and a vociferous critic of The Retreat proposal, said town officials should turn it down based on the Comprehensive Plan. That document calls for eventual high-intensity commercial use such as a shopping center, as well as low-density residential and mixed-use development across the site.
“We told you as a community what we wanted on this property if it were rezoned,” Albimino said at a planning commission hearing.
Apparently unswayed, planners then voted to recommend approval to the council, though the one town council member who also serves on the planning commission, Cecile Newcomb, who like Chachra is running for re-election, cast a no vote.
Jason Doornbos, Landmark’s vice president of acquisitions and development, said Thursday that the company asked that the town council’s vote be moved back from a planned date next week to Nov. 12 so that the company could address town concerns about the legal mechanisms around some of its proffers. Everything that Landmark earlier promised remains on the table, Doornbos said.
But some items, such as a $500 per unit contribution to a new town affordable-housing fund, are being reworked. The affordable housing contribution, an idea adopted in other localities and one that Blacksburg officials called for in a recent economic development plan, will not be a proffer but instead will be part of the sale contract for the property, Doornbos said.
Landmark is also planning a bridge to carry the well-known community greenway, the Huckleberry Trail, across Prices Fork Road into the project, he said.
Doornbos said the request for a later council vote was not made to avoid arriving at the same meeting as the University City Center proposal, and said the delay would not affect financing or the overall plan for the project.
“We definitely built some cushion into the time frame,” Doornbos said.
Part downtown, part campus
Among the arguments swirling around University City Center and The Retreat are closely linked disputes about whether Blacksburg has enough student housing already, and whether students who now rent houses in the town’s oldest, closest-to-downtown neighborhoods will leave for new, more student-oriented developments if they are built near to campus.
“We have seen in other markets that a Retreat community will impact existing housing stock by pulling students out of older single-family homes and neighborhoods, thereby freeing some of the existing housing stock for other users,” John Neel of Gay and Neel, a Christiansburg engineering and architecture company working with Landmark, wrote in an August letter to Blacksburg officials.
University City Center’s developers make a similar claim: “The under-supply of purpose-built student housing contributes to students moving into neighborhoods,” Johnson said.
Of the few Tech students at home on a recent afternoon in rental houses on the blocks of Progress Street closest to downtown, none said they would leave for a new student housing complex.
“I would not move,” said Daria Victorov , a senior from Reston who is majoring in financial planning. Of her reasons for wanting to live on Progress, “ part of it is downtown, part of it is campus,” she said.
“I wanted to live in an actual house because all my life I lived in a condo,” Victorov said.
Just up the block, Carlo Zuffi, a junior majoring in hospitality and tourism management, said he also wanted to be close not just to class, but to downtown.
“Definitely location is the main point,” Zuffi said.
As critics of University City Center and The Retreat have described scenarios of unruly students bothering neighbors, some town officials have been quick to respond.
“I think there’s an assumption this is going to be Sodom and Gomorrah … but I don’t think that is founded,” planner Paul Lancaster said after the planning commission’s hearing on The Retreat.
At a council work session on University City Center, Chachra said, “I am very pro students and residents living side by side. That’s the kind of town we are.”
On the question of whether the town already has enough student-oriented housing, DeMotts, a property manager at the Stonegate and Carlton-Scott apartment complexes in north Blacksburg, warned that new competition would bring lost revenue and deterioration among established apartments.
A board member with the New River Valley Apartment Council, DeMotts is the lone challenger in this year’s four-way race for three council seats. Besides Chachra and Newcomb, DeMotts faces Councilwoman Susan Anderson in the four-way race for three seats.
DeMotts said the town’s rental occupancy rate tends to run in the mid-90 percent range. Tech is projecting only slight student enrollment growth in the immediate future. With The Edge, an already-approved 911-bedroom apartment complex being built elsewhere on Prices Fork Road and due to open next year, the town has plenty of student housing, DeMotts said.
“At a certain point, you have to pause to catch your breath, let Virginia Tech catch up a little bit,” she said.
Town figures list 16,214 rental bedrooms in multifamily units in Blacksburg. Tech has about 29,000 students enrolled in Blacksburg, with about 9,300 living on campus.
‘A home in my own town’
The third housing proposal heading toward a council vote is the redevelopment of the Blacksburg Estates mobile home park.
The last of what was a string of such neighborhoods along Givens Road, Blacksburg Estates is home to 264 people, some of whom rent their homes and others who own their homes but rent the lots they sit on, according to the town’s review of the redevelopment proposal.
“It’s a nice place to live,” Earlie Whittaker , a resident of the park for most of his 71 years, reflected recently. With bus service to nearby shopping, “it’s handy for a lot of people who can’t get around.”
Retired from a career in construction and suffering an array of health problems, Whittaker said he was happy in his home, which was built in 1969. Fresh drywall on the kitchen ceiling showed recent repairs.
“They treat you right. … They help you with anything they can,” he said of the park’s management. “I liked living here.”
Whittaker’s niece, Nancy Long, a resident of the park for five years, called it the “last place for poor people in Blacksburg.”
The redevelopment proposal for Blacksburg Estates is a five-phase plan that would eventually replace the mobile homes with 59 single-family houses and 171 town houses.
At a meeting last month with property owners Frank Bruno and Don Carter, some residents were tearful as they described their efforts to own their homes there. Several thanked Carter and Bruno for financing the purchase of mobile homes, saying they never could have arranged it otherwise.
Others raised their voices, telling the owners they were driving people into homelessness because other mobile home parks would not accept the older trailers common in Blacksburg Estates.
In the redevelopment proposal’s first phase, about 41 single-family houses would be built but one side of Blacksburg Estates would be maintained as a mobile home park. Bruno and Carter said they would pay the costs to relocate homes from one side of Blacksburg Estates to the other or provide new homes there.
But if other phases of single-family houses and town houses are developed, residents would have to leave, they said.
At the meeting, Carter and Bruno told residents that their decision to redevelop the park stemmed from the rising cost of taxes they pay on the property and from the recent widening of Givens Lane and associated storm water runoff measures that took a portion of their land and reduced the number of mobile homes they could place there. They said repeatedly that they did not know when, or whether, they would develop the latter phases of the project, but said they wanted to seek town approval for the entire redevelopment now.
Resident Jamie Duncan said many Blacksburg Estates residents hope the town will turn down the zoning change needed for the redevelopment, and that the owners will decide to apply to redevelop only part of the property.
“Slow this down a little bit,” Duncan urged recently. “Let’s bring everybody back to the table.”
Duncan said the first mobile home that he and his wife, and their five children, shared at Blacksburg Estates was taken by the road project. Carter and Bruno helped him finance a new home, he said.
“We’ve got a really great community here,” Duncan said.
Phyllis Olinger, a longtime advocate for affordable housing, former council candidate and resident of Blacksburg Estates, said she couldn’t wait to see whether the town would approve the redevelopment. The widening of Givens Lane, with two roundabouts built adjacent to the park, indicated to her that even if this plan were turned down, the way was being prepared for major development at some point.
“We just felt like the way things were moving … something big is being planned for the area,” Olinger said recently. “I didn’t really own anything besides my mobile home and I was at risk.”
After more than a decade in Blacksburg Estates, Olinger recently pulled up stakes and moved with her son to Christiansburg. The relocation was bittersweet because Olinger had lived in Blacksburg for most of her life, as had generations of her family before her, she said.
But Christiansburg has been welcoming, she said.
“Christiansburg is inclusive of all income levels,” Olinger said. “Blacksburg is exclusive.”
After years of working as a secretary at Tech and raising her children, Olinger said, “I couldn’t dream of having a home in my own town.”
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