The wrecking ball could swing next year for Roanoke’s Campbell Court Transportation Center, the oldest operating bus station in Virginia.
After the dust settles, Roanoke builder Lucas Thornton plans to construct a large real estate development, house at least 100 new downtown residents and create offices for 200 additional people to work downtown.
Part of one of the buildings would reach seven stories, plans for the $40 million venture show.
No more would 1,500 daily bus users frequent the block. But redeveloping the north side of Campbell Avenue could strengthen commercial leasing in the block, and possibly in nearby blocks, and bolster business activity and city tax receipts. It would follow on the heels of construction of a Mast General Store at Jefferson Street and Church Avenue, also expected to be a catalyst.
The complex would occupy space freed up by the relocation of bus services to Third Street and Salem Avenue, where a new bus station is to be built.
The site on which the current bus station sits, at just over 1 acre, is large enough to support two new buildings enclosing a pedestrian courtyard and street. Months before a possible groundbreaking in 2020, Thornton said he has booked one tenant and held talks with other potential users, including a restaurant.
“It will be massively transformational and hugely exciting for downtown,” said Thornton, managing partner of Hist:Re Partners. His projects have included the residential project Gramercy Row, the commercial project Market Square, the office and residential project known as The Lawson Building and the residential-education project Big Lick Junction.
Roanoke officials have endorsed the plan and agreed to contribute $5.5 million. They also plan to swap him the bus station property for $500,000 and a building for a future train station, a deal the city calls about an even trade. Thornton estimates that his company’s investment will exceed $35 million.
Roanoke officials are still in the process of obtaining approvals to move the bus terminal, such as a special exception to the zoning law.
An architectural rendering depicts a proposed retail, commercial and residential development occupying the block between Campbell and Salem av…
The working title of Thornton’s development is Randolph Street, a former name for Williamson Road and the current name of Norfolk Southern’s downtown Roanoke freight corridor.
In the current configuration, Randolph Street has 90 one- and two-bedroom apartments and 15 live-work homes, which combine a ground-floor commercial space and upstairs residential space. That represents a 6% gain in downtown housing units, currently estimated at 1,700.
A 65,000-square-foot office tower, a portion of which would rise seven stories, could host about 200 workers, according to Thornton. Much of the space is already spoken for, he said.
Pedestrians hold sway in Thornton’s project renderings, which show a pedestrian courtyard that doubles as a south-to-north street. The public space theme, also includes at least one public upper-story balcony, he said.
To its critics, closing Campbell Court makes sense. Former Roanoke council member Rupert Cutler has called it “an island that has fallen behind,” noting how it sits among apartment buildings, offices and restaurants in formerly vacant or underused buildings that were renovated.
Former Roanoke council member John Garland once called the facility “the abominable abyss.” One transit consultant working for the city used the word “dank,” while another called the interior boarding area “claustrophobic.”
The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation said it is the oldest operating bus station in Virginia.
The station strikes artist and occasional bus rider Susan Egbert as “dreary,” she said. She and a handful of other artists recently set up shop as Left of Center Art Space in the former Woolworth building across from the bus station.
“It just was a plus when we heard there was going to be something exciting going on there,” Egbert said. “I think it would benefit the whole block, help people come off the market this way.”
A favorable leasing climate exists as Thornton prepares to erect the first high-rise building in downtown in years; the last ones were the Wells Fargo tower and One Ten Franklin (the former Norfolk Southern building), both built in the early 1990s.
Some 88% of office real estate in the central business district tracked by Poe & Cronk, a commercial real estate firm, was leased in February, up from 83% in 2016.
A single company that’s already operating in the Roanoke area has leased 50,000 square feet of the planned new office space, the developer said, adding the company won’t be publicly identified until later.
“I think this move is part of their effort to be more visible in the community, which there’s no question this will do,” he said.
Seth Wilkinson, owner of a vacant three-story building at 30 Campbell Ave., formerly the K.W. “Pete” Smith Theatre, said more workers and residents in the block bode well for his commercial property.
“Maybe we can find a complementary tenant for ... [our] space that would go along with all that he’s doing there,” Wilkinson said. Showings of the building and its terrazzo floors have picked up since Thornton announced his project, Wilkinson said.
“It’s really an investment that is going to bring something that the end of that block needs and that’s critical mass,” he said. “Usually, the foot traffic kind of ends around Sidewinders there, especially during Roanoke’s more social hours, and we’re excited to see that change and see some of that traffic come down more towards the end of our block at First Street there. We’re extremely excited for what he’s doing there.”
The Thornton project “will make the downtown area a much easier sell,” said Frank Martin, a senior associate broker at Hall Associates, a real estate firm. “People want to live and locate their businesses where the energy and flow of activity is strong — and we have that now.”
Dennis Cronk of Poe & Cronk agreed.
“When the bus station moves and that goes up, Campbell Avenue’s going to have a revitalization,” he said.
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