that stretched into adjoining neighborhoods. The renovation of old buildings over the last 10 years transformed downtown Roanoke into something very different from the jobs hub that it once was. Office buildings and warehouses that once were filled with 9-to-5 workers now are part of Roanoke’s newest neighborhood. At the time of the 2000 census, downtown was home to fewer than 50 people. Over the next decade, that number grew to 1,200 Workman people, and today, 1,700 people live downtown, according to Downtown Roanoke Inc. President and CEO Tina Workman. The falling dominos that led to this point have been fairly well documented: The residential push began with public investment in a pair of former Norfolk-Southern office buildings just north of the tracks. Renovation turned the two buildings into the Roanoke Higher Education Center, a hub of programs from regional colleges and universities, and Eight Jefferson Place, downtown’s first apartment complex of consequence. Private-sector developers began to dabble in condominiums. The project that signaled the wave to come, however, became the Hancock Building — an ambitious renovation of a former office building into apartments that involved the use of state and federal historic tax credits and an $880,000 grant from the city to assist with the tricky restoration of its art deco facade. The Hancock Building, renovated by Roanoke developer Ed Walker, became the go-to model for a growing series of developers who used the up-front financing made possible by selling historic tax credits to continue projects despite the collapse of the housing market. Even with the Great Recession that followed, residents lined up to live in these new, downtown developments, encouraging more developers to jump in, slowly creating a new neighborhood. Those tax credit-fueled renova-
tions sparked new construction like the Hampton Inn or Thornton’s latest project. “The other thing more broadly that led to new construction is the strength of the rental market,” says Thornton. “There is no risk but market risk. We are very sensitive to it. We have 206 apartments we own or manage. We are very careful not only to manage our overall occupancy but also the volume of inquiries … “Tolerance for rental budgets has been increasing. Part of that has to do with what’s available and what prices are, but part of it also has to do with the market’s expectation and marketing for downtown living. That’s a long way of saying we felt that at this point, rents had reached a point that justified new construction.”
As for who’s living in all these downtown apartments, Workman says it’s mostly young professionals with an average age of about 30, as well as retirees. A few families live there, but developers have focused mostly on building single-bedroom units. Downtown units command high rental prices per square foot. Larger units will cut out many families, especially when compared with the cost of mortgages in nearby neighborhoods such as Raleigh Court and Wasena. The growth in residential housing has come with a trade-off, as jobs have trickled out of downtown to other parts of Roanoke, if not out of western Virginia altogether. That outflow stands as a big reason developers were able to renovate vacant
Roanoke-based developer Lucas Thornton is building 85 apartments on what used to be a parking lot.
Meanwhile, renovation projects continue apace, too. Several blocks to the west, Faisal Khan, who redeveloped the former Crystal Tower building into the 90-apartment Ponce de León, has nearly completed leasing the Locker Room. That project involved renovating a former YMCA building — a complicated job that involved leaving challenging architecture in place to secure historic tax credits while still enticing tenants. Khan’s solution: Restore the YMCA’s athletic amenities and use them to market to a customer base for which fitness is an important lifestyle component.
warehouses and office buildings into apartments. The most recent departure hit at Roanoke’s railroad roots. The city grew exponentially in the late 1800s when Norfolk and Western built its headquarters in the former Big Lick, but employment shrank through the 20th century as its corporate descendent, Norfolk Southern, shifted its focus to hubs in Atlanta and Norfolk. In January, Norfolk Southern announced it would close its administrative offices in Roanoke, resulting in the departure of 426 jobs. The railroad’s announcement put an exclamation point on a larger ROANOKE BUSINESS