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Sunday, March 17, 2013
When Roanoke City Council adopted neighborhood design district rules in 2002, there was not immediate rejoicing among groups that make it their mission to provide housing to low-income families.
“We were sort of pushed — I’m not going to lie — kicking and screaming into the new way of thinking,” said Brian Clark, construction director for Habitat for Humanity in the Roanoke Valley.
But a decade of experience with the rules has made believers out of Clark and Habitat. The traditional Habitat houses that conjure up Pete Seeger singing about those “Little Boxes” have been superseded by American Foursquares, an architectural style that’s as much a part of Roanoke as the Mill Mountain Star.
“They’re building some of the best-designed houses in Roanoke,” Chris Chittum, Roanoke’s planning, building and development director, said of Habitat.
The design rules also have encouraged Habitat and other housing organizations to take on more rehabilitation projects.
Neighbors wander up to share stories about their fathers and uncles who originally built the homes. Everyone feels invested in the work.
“To us, it’s worth it to put just a little extra in it to make it blend better,” Clark said. “We want to walk away from it and feel proud.”
On a purely financial note, the rules also made it easier for housing organizations to adapt to requirements tied to federal dollars such as the Community Development Block Grants, which have funded millions of dollars in revitalization programs here.
Roanoke recently announced it’s seeking federal funds to support its next major rehabilitation initiatives, including in the Loudon-Melrose neighborhood, where the city’s design rules will once again play a key role in guiding improvements that complement the community.
The rules were adopted after residents in Melrose and Gilmer became concerned about incompatible infill houses cropping up in their neighborhoods.
They made a slide show of examples and took it to the General Assembly, which passed legislation giving Roanoke the authority to create neighborhood design districts.
The first was in Melrose-Rugby, and now all or parts of 16 neighborhoods are covered by the rules.
The rules don’t require a particular architectural style, such as the Foursquare or Queen Anne Victorian or bungalow.
Rather, they set standards for the pitch of the roof, windows, porches and other elements that are similar to surrounding homes.
They’re different from the city’s historic district guidelines, which focus on repairs to existing buildings.
Clark gave me a tour of some of Habitat’s handiwork in Hurt Park and other neighborhoods where the group is active.
He waved to residents on their front porches and pointed to architectural details that give homes their personality, such as a round window or a spiffy door.
Habitat has built 14 homes in Hurt Park and finished five in the West End with two more in progress and another seven to nine planned for this year.
“The quality of the housing that has been built in these neighborhoods is so much better and almost indistinguishable from the existing houses,” Chittum said.
Lora Katz, chairwoman of the Roanoke Planning Commission, agreed.
“Anything that improves the architecture and feel of the neighborhood is going to increase the value of the properties in the neighborhood and pride in your street,” she said.
Nuckols is editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times.
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