The hulking industrial-era smokestacks of Roanoke’s old American Viscose Co. factory and the high-tech research labs at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute couldn’t be further removed from each other in technology and purpose.
But geographically, the two are separated by only about a mile. And as the research institute and its neighbors – the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Carilion Clinic – prepare for significant expansions in the coming years, the century-old industrial site could find itself a player in the city’s push to strengthen its biotech and health sciences clusters.
As announced this week, developer Ed Walker plans to convert the 75-plus-acre industrial campus into a mixed-use development that will include apartments, commercial spaces and industrial tenants. The city of Roanoke has pledged $10 million to the project in exchange for a guaranteed investment of $50 million over the next 17 years.
A master plan for the site has yet to be written; that will start – along with a massive cleanup operation – once Walker closes on his $8 million purchase in early April.
But several observers said they believe that the project – called Riverdale – has the potential to boost the city’s biotech efforts by providing room for lab and startup expansion, by offering more rental housing close to the hospital and the medical school – and by creating the kind of hip setting that attracts students and young researchers.
“If you take the long view, it fits right in with what we’re trying to facilitate and catalyze with economic development and sort of this health sciences ecosystem,” said Nancy Agee, president and CEO of Carilion Clinic. (Disclosure: Carilion is one of our donors but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy.)
The city for a decade or more has been working with partners including Virginia Tech, Virginia Western Community College and Carilion to develop a health sciences industry cluster. The medical school and the research institute launched side by side in 2010; the institute already has expanded once with a second building that opened in 2021. Today it counts more than 400 employees and trainees.
Six years ago came RAMP, a downtown business accelerator that works to jump-start small companies, with a focus on health sciences startups. Work is underway now on 30,000 square feet of shared lab space just a half-mile from the campus that houses the research institute and medical school.
The growth within what the city calls its “innovation corridor” is continuing.
According to a capital budget request filed with the state by Virginia Tech, there are plans to construct a brand-new medical school building – at 100,000 square feet, nearly twice its current size – which would allow the school to double its enrollment, to 400. The existing medical school building would become another expansion of the research institute. In total, the request says, the project would cost $216.2 million.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposed amendments to the state budget include just over $6 million to launch the planning of the projects in fiscal year 2024. An amendment filed by Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, would boost that by another $3 million.
Carilion, meanwhile, is in the midst of a $400 million expansion of its flagship Roanoke Memorial Hospital and plans to build a $50 million cancer center not far from the campus that hosts the medical school and research institute. At some point, Radford University Carilion, a collaboration that offers health sciences degrees and is currently housed at nearby Carilion Roanoke Community Hospital, also will need new space, Agee said.
“Already you can see we’re sort of creating this innovation corridor with space needs,” Agee said. “I don’t know how long it’ll take. But I can certainly see 20 years from now, there’s going to be a lot of change in our area. And 20 years isn’t that long away. …
“I just think we’re at the real beginning. It was nascent at some point, maybe eight, 10, 12 years ago. Now we’re at the real beginning of seeing some major growth in the area.”
Just how much of that growth might eventually head to Riverdale – or to any other part of the city, for that matter – is still unknown.
Dr. Lee Learman, dean of the medical school, said his team will start planning in earnest for a new building if the money sought in the state budget comes through. Site selection hasn’t started in any formal way, he said, but they’re already thinking about how big the new building should be, and where it should be built.
It will need to be relatively close to the existing campus, he said, to maintain easy connections to Carilion and to the research institute, he said.
Mike Friedlander, executive director of the research institute and vice president for health sciences and technology at Virginia Tech, said the institute’s next phase of growth will take place on the existing campus.
“But frankly, after that, with our vision and what Carilion’s visions are, it’s pretty much all gone here, all the space,” he said. “It’s the next step after that, going out beyond four or five years, that we’re going to be desperately looking for more expansion.”
In an ideal world – one in which there were no rail lines or rivers or mountains to stand in the way – both the research institute and the medical school could continue to expand right where they are, he said.
“But that’s not reality,” he said. Nor does he see the mile or so between his campus and Riverdale as a problem. He actually sees the new development as a logical extension of the innovation corridor – which he thinks some people might see as a linear district along South Jefferson Street but that he likes to picture as more of an octopus, with tentacles reaching beyond those narrow boundaries.
In fact, he actually explored the land a few years back while considering possible locations for a startup accelerator. “I remember thinking at the time, this would be really cool,” he said.
While that plan didn’t happen, he kept the site in mind and, he said, was thrilled to hear the news of its imminent redevelopment.
“I always felt it would be an important part of the ecosystem here,” he said.
Whether or not the school or the research institute themselves expand to Riverdale, the site could host spinoff companies – and provide housing for students and researchers, who Agee thinks would be drawn to that kind of mixed-use project.
“These are people who love a vibe, who are healthy and enjoy the greenway, the blueway,” she said. “The more we can make that exciting and interesting, the more opportunity we have to recruit even more people.”
Learman agreed. “I can definitely see this being a neighborhood that our students would be very interested in living in,” he said.
If Walker were to ask for his input on the project, Learman said he’d emphasize the need to focus on amenities that attract and retain young residents – offerings like green space, transportation options, access to shopping, high-speed internet.
“The most successful innovation districts around the country have these components as a way to attract and retain a younger generation that are finishing their training and are emerging in the work of innovation, technology, biomedical research, health care – all of those new workforce members are the people we should be working to attract in Roanoke,” he said.
Friedlander, who spends much of his time recruiting researchers, said he met Thursday with a candidate from Houston. She talked about how much she loves the area where she lives and works – about the apartments and shops and startups that have proliferated there.
He took her on a driving tour of Roanoke – which didn’t include the old Viscose property. But maybe soon it will become part of his spiel, he said.
“It wouldn’t be a selling point right now,” he said. “But if we started to see this kind of thing happening there, and I could talk to recruits about the vision … that’s a definite selling point, I can tell you.”