The former American Viscose plant in Roanoke. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.
The former American Viscose plant in Roanoke. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

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Roanoke’s sprawling century-old American Viscose Co. property, a storied but faded reminder of a long-ago industrial heyday, is the target of an ambitious new redevelopment plan that city officials believe could transform the former factory site into Roanoke’s newest destination neighborhood.

Developer Ed Walker, who has built a reputation around the region for transforming old buildings into living and working spaces, envisions a mix of apartments, commercial spaces and industrial tenants on the property, which spans at least 75 acres along the Roanoke River near the base of Mill Mountain. It will include both new construction and rehabs of existing structures, and it will be called Riverdale, a nod to the historic name for that part of the city.

Walker’s plan got a key vote of support Tuesday night from the Roanoke City Council, which unanimously signed onto a performance agreement that will give the developer $10 million toward buying and cleaning up the property in exchange for a promised $50 million in investment on the site within 17 years.

“This is so transformative and exciting,” Vice Mayor Joe Cobb said just before the council voted. He listed off a series of investments that the city has made over the years – the transformation of downtown, new development in Northwest Roanoke, the growth around the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine – and pointed out that this project will focus attention on yet another part of the city, Southeast Roanoke.

“These are all positive things for the growth of our city, and it’s exciting to be part of this transformation in this moment in time,” he said.

This will not be a quick turnaround, Walker warned during an interview last week. He expects to close on his $8 million purchase of the property in early April, and much of the first year is likely to be consumed by cleanup. Since American Viscose shuttered the rayon plant in 1958, the property has become home to an eclectic mix of tenants, some of whom have amassed junkyards of rusted-out autos, tractor-trailers and construction equipment. 

The buildings themselves, the earliest of which opened in 1917, will need significant attention; Walker believes that roof work alone will be measured in the millions of dollars.

He expects to collaborate with other developers on much of the site. “It’s just so big,” he said. “It’s just going to take a lot of money, a lot of talent, a lot of time.”

But the payoff could be considerable. An economic impact analysis commissioned by the city estimates that the new development could be responsible for almost $66 million in direct and indirect economic impact to the city by 2030, during its first phase of development. By 2040, it estimates the cumulative impact on the city at more than $326 million. 

The city’s initial financial involvement in the Riverdale project is substantial, City Manager Bob Cowell acknowledged. But he believes that the city needed to seize the opportunity to keep the Viscose property whole, and to put it in the hands of a developer with a track record of successfully turning around aging commercial and industrial sites.

The redevelopment of Riverdale, Cowell said, could end up being as significant to Roanoke’s economic health and urban life as the decades-long revitalization of downtown. The site is just over a mile from the city’s burgeoning Innovation Corridor, the area around the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute that is filling up with lab space and office buildings.

At some point, probably not very far in the future, those projects will need room to grow, and to house students and employees, he said. If Walker successfully develops Riverdale into a full-fledged neighborhood, with housing and restaurants and other amenities, it could be a logical extension of that corridor, he said.

Cowell counts specific benefits for Southeast Roanoke, which was hit particularly hard by the Viscose closure and has been a recent focus for city revitalization efforts, including affordable housing investments made possible through federal American Rescue Plan funds.

“I do think that the [city] council has been very aware over the years of the need to figure out ways to invest more in Southeast,” he said. “This is hopefully a part of a whole collection of activities that are going on in Southeast. It’s really in recognition of the challenges that exist there.

“If this thing were brought back to a meaningful life, I think it has tremendous potential for the entire southeastern part of the city, in terms of really stabilizing the area and causing people to think very differently about the Southeast than they probably have in 50, 60 years,” he said. 

Bill Elliot, the chairman of the partnership group that has owned the property since shortly after the Viscose plant closed, concurred. 

“Southeast has needed that boost ever since the Viscose plant shut down,” said Elliot, whose family business, Davis H. Elliot Co., was headquartered for years at the industrial park that the partners created at the site in the early 1960s, hoping to attract a more diverse slate of businesses to replace the rayon manufacturer and its thousands of jobs.

For decades, the Roanoke Industrial Center has been mostly full, attracting tenants ranging from multi-million-dollar corporations to sculptors, and paying regular distributions to the partners. But the aging buildings needed repairs, and a key tenant left, and the distributions dried up. The partnership shares have been passed on to far-flung second and third generations. It was time to sell, said Elliot, who’s 76.

“For the partnership, this is a great solution,” he said. “And I think it’s great for the community, because I think Ed will do what he says he’s going to do. I think it will create a much more vibrant environment than it currently has.”

See also: Opinion: The redevelopment of the former American Viscose plant in Roanoke was considered unthinkable. Until now.

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Developer Ed Walker at the site. Courtesy of Walker.

The Viscose property has always loomed large in Walker’s imagination – he grew up in Roanoke, and he remembers taking a date there for a picnic on the bank of the Roanoke River. 

American Viscose, which employed more than 5,000 people during the late 1920s, left behind a warren of red-brick buildings and smokestacks when it closed. As new tenants moved into the Roanoke Industrial Center, they brought in their welding equipment and old railroad cars and stacks of burial vaults.

Walker’s other projects

Developer Ed Walker has been involved in numerous historic building renovations across Western Virginia over the last 15 years. Here’s a partial list of projects that he has led or been a part of; the dates below indicate when a project opened, unless otherwise noted:

2008: Hancock Building, Roanoke: conversion of a former furniture store into apartments and commercial space.

2009: Cotton Mill Lofts, Roanoke: conversion of a former cotton mill into apartments.

2011: The Patrick Henry, Roanoke: conversion of a former hotel into apartments and commercial space.

2013: River House, Roanoke: conversion of a former ice and cold storage building into apartments, a restaurant and a climbing gym.

2013: West End Flats, Roanoke: conversion of the former Roanoke City Health Department building into apartments and a brewery.

2017 (announced): Buena Vista revitalization: plan to buy, rehab and resell more than a dozen properties in downtown Buena Vista by May 2021. The onset of the pandemic brought the plan to an early end, but a number of buildings were renovated.

2020: Bee Hotel, Danville: conversion of a former newspaper office building into a hotel.

2022: Police department, Danville: conversion of a former textile company office building into the Danville Police Department.

2022 (announced): Valleydale, Salem: plans to convert a former meat processing plant into apartments.

2022 (announced): Holbrook Ross Hotel, Danville: plans to convert a former medical office building into a hotel.

2023 (announced): Riverdale, Roanoke: plans to redevelop an 80-acre industrial site into a mixed-use development.

It felt like a movie set to Walker all those years ago – and still does, he said on a recent drive through the property. Walker, now 55, pointed to a hulking double-smokestacked building rising above the low-slung structures around it. “This is just like Lex Luther’s lair,” he said. “This is fantastic stuff.”

It’s also in the heart of Southeast Roanoke, a part of the city that Walker has wanted to be involved in for years.

So when the owners of the site agreed just before Thanksgiving to sell him the entire property, he leaped at the opportunity.

Walker is no stranger to industrial redevelopment. Over the last two decades, he has spearheaded residential and mixed-use rehab projects in his hometown and across Western Virginia. Just last fall, he announced he would transform the shuttered Valleydale meat processing plant in Salem into more than 300 apartments.

He said he does not want to wipe the slate clean at the Viscose property. In fact, the grittiness of the site – its “authenticity,” he said – is one of the things that attracted him to it. And while he chafes at the abandoned vehicles and broken windows, he hopes that many of the 100 or so existing business tenants will want to stay.

“It ought to be a real place with real people, and then just add a little more vitality,” he said. “I think there’s a way to take the best of what it is and kind of elevate it. Celebrate it.”

He credits the current owners – particularly Will Trinkle, whose grandfather was one of the original partners and whose firm handles the industrial park’s leasing and management – with keeping the site running during challenging economic times, and with getting the ball rolling on redevelopment at the site. The Star City School of Ballet occupies a rehabbed building. So does Chris’s Coffee and Custard, a neighborhood cafe, and Lab Sports Performance, with its collection of indoor soccer fields. The site earned both state and national historic designations in 2019, the culmination of a complex application process.

“They really deserve a lot of credit, I think, for giving us a foundation to build on,” Walker said.

Walker bought a five-story building at the site in 2018, and he knows firsthand the challenges involved in redeveloping on the old Viscose property – which, among other considerations, sits in a floodplain. While the city completed a massive flood control project in 2012 – visible in the bench cuts that line the river along the industrial park – FEMA is still working on updated floodplain maps for the city, which can complicate redevelopment efforts.

As he contemplates future uses for the site, Walker sees room for medical offices and welding shops, restaurants and art studios, hundreds of apartments. He expects to maintain a distinctly industrial district on the end of the property farthest from Ninth Street, which is anchored by Chemsolv, a chemical distributor, and bisected by a massive electric transmission line.

“Which doesn’t mean we can’t do a ton of fun stuff,” Walker said. And he thinks it might actually be comforting to people who are worried that his plan involves gentrification. There’s plenty of room for “everybody to do everything,” he said, as long as there’s buy-in to the development’s larger goals. 

Still, he wouldn’t be surprised if some tenants find the coming changes worrisome.

“Any kind of change is hard, so I’m expecting some people to be concerned,” he said. “But hopefully I’m wrong.”

Trinkle predicted a range of responses. “They’ll be nervous, no doubt,” he said. “Nobody likes change, right?”

But he expects that as they learn more about Walker’s plans, and as they understand that the diversity of the site is one of the things that attracted him to the property, many of them will come around. He’s known both Walker and the property his whole life – one of his earliest memories is of an old smokestack being razed – and he believes that Walker will be mindful of the site’s history.

“I think if anybody sits down with Ed they’re going to feel better,” he said. “He just has a great feel, and he’s sincere. And I think they all know his reputation. …

“How amazing to have this opportunity within the city borders.”

* * *

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Although Walker has redeveloped numerous properties, the size and complexity of Riverdale meant this wasn’t a project he was prepared to take on without the backing of the city. 

He couldn’t simply walk into Wells Fargo and borrow the money for a project like this, he said, and he recalled an early conversation about Riverdale with Cowell.

“I said, ‘Bob, I cannot possibly deal with the literally thousands and thousands of unknowns and uncertainties with a gun to my head from a bank or interest payments or anything like that. I’ve got to have time to breathe and plan and assimilate and discover,’” he said.

The $10 million forgivable loan, which the city’s Economic Development Authority is expected to approve Wednesday morning, will give him a start. Under the terms of the performance agreement, the development also will be rebated the current real estate tax revenue brought in by the property – about $100,000 – each year through 2040, which will help pay for engineering studies and other site work. The economic impact study predicts that in 2041, the real estate tax on the property will be $1.4 million.

Walker expects to pursue both state and federal historic tax credits to help pay for the work. Together, those programs reimburse developers for up to 45% of eligible expenditures.

The city will support Walker’s pursuit of tax credits, Cowell said, and will pursue other funding that’s available to help with issues like site remediation. He also expects that at some point, there will be a need for public infrastructure at the site, since it’s currently served by private roads, water and sewer. “And all of it’s old,” he said. That will require a yet-unknown investment by the city.

“I actually think that the $50 million commitment that he’s made is really minor compared to what the potential is. I think it could be a lot more than that,” Cowell said. “I also know that the $10 million that we’ve committed is significantly less than what’s ultimately going to be necessary to make this project happen, both public and private.” 

Both Cowell and Walker are eager to be able to point to visible progress as soon as possible. 

The most public piece of the property, along Ninth Street, will be an early focus of both cleanup and development, Walker said. There’s even a chance that there might be a commitment on a new building in that area a year from now, he said.

From the city’s perspective, the sooner that new construction or redevelopment can start, the sooner new tax revenues will be available to help pay down the $10 million debt.

The city likely will issue this debt separately from its regular capital debt, Cowell said, in order to be able to handle the long-term financing differently. For example, he said: The city might borrow under a plan to pay interest only for the first few years to keep the impact on cash flow light until the development starts generating tax revenue. 

The hope, he said, is that those revenues will start to come in within four or five years. If not, or if the economy doesn’t grow, then the repayments will start to compete with other projects in the city’s capital improvement program, he acknowledged.

Under the terms of the performance agreement, half of the $50 million investment must be made within 12 years.

This is a different kind of economic development project than what the city council is used to dealing with, Cowell said.

“It’s a bigger, longer project than normal,” he said. “This is a little different, because it’s kind of like, OK, we’re going into a partnership for the next 15 to 17 years. Let’s see what we can do to make this evolve. They wanted to put some checks in along the way.”

* * *

The Roanoke Industrial Center site is probably the largest redevelopment area in the entire region, let alone in the city, Cowell believes. (The only sites that would come close would be some of Roanoke’s railyards, he said, but those would be “nearly impossible” to redevelop because of their previous uses, and because Norfolk Southern would likely never sell them.)

The area under contract is roughly six and a half times the size of Roanoke’s Grandin Village commercial and residential hub, and about the size of downtown Roanoke as bordered by Williamson Road, Salem Avenue, Second Street and Elm Avenue, Walker said. It encompasses a million square feet under roof – four times larger than the Wells Fargo tower that rises over downtown.

To compare it to some of Walker’s other projects in the Roanoke Valley: The land is roughly 10 times larger than the site of the old Valleydale plant. The square footage is nearly 17 times greater than the River House, a project that saw Walker redevelop an old ice house into an apartment building, and that sparked ongoing redevelopment in Roanoke’s Wasena neighborhood.

Walker isn’t exactly sure about the total acreage of the property he’s buying – the surveying maps indicate it’s about 100 acres, but he’s been calling it 75 to 80 to be conservative – nor does he know exactly how many buildings it encompasses. 

Not wanting to disturb the tenants, he hasn’t even been inside most of the structures. He’s prepared for surprises, he said.

“For something like Riverdale, you’ve got to get in there knowing that you know one one-thousandth of what you need to know and will learn in the coming six to 12 months,” he said.

But it’s clear, he added, that the first steps will be to start clearing out debris and to commence work on a master plan. There will be conversations with civil engineers and hydrology experts, stakeholder meetings with tenants and neighborhood residents. He’s already started talking to outdoors groups about how to connect the site to the nearby Valley AFC soccer fields and to the trails up Mill Mountain, and about how to best use the 20 acres of woods that run along the eastern edge of the property.

Riverdale has the potential, Cowell said, to be a whole new neighborhood, and he thinks it’s no stretch to predict that 15 years from now, residents will think of Riverdale just like they do Wasena or Grandin Village or downtown or any of the city’s other established areas.

Elliot, whose personal history with the property includes being rescued by helicopter from his company’s roof during the flood of 1985, said he thinks the sale to Walker is the best outcome for the industrial park.

“I really do think it’ll be attractive to more tenants over time, especially when you get some people living down there,” he said.

“I just see it as a huge win for the city. I hope the city agrees.”

Megan Schnabel

Megan Schnabel is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach her at megan@cardinalnews.org.