Technical Street on the old American Viscose property. Photo by Randy Walker.
Technical Street on the old American Viscose property. Photo by Randy Walker.

One hundred-plus days into the massive Riverdale project, Ed Walker is surprised he doesn’t feel more defeated. 

Walker has tackled big projects before. But Riverdale, the $60 million conversion of Roanoke’s old American Viscose plant to a mixed-used neighborhood, is the biggest. 

“I was expecting to be really crestfallen,” he said in an interview at Chris’ Coffee & Custard on Ninth Street Southeast, on the edge of the Riverdale property. “I felt anxiety and concern about, ‘Will we be able to do this?’ About, ‘Is it too difficult,’ etc. And those anxieties are well-reasoned and understandable. And there will be unforeseen difficulties and this and that and I’ll be mentally prepared for them.

“But I’m more energized by the possibilities and the progress. I mean, the progress that we’ve made here in 100 days is staggering.”

Perhaps it’s the removal of an estimated million pounds of rusting cars, trucks, trailers, boats and miscellaneous junk that has lifted a weight off his mind. 

The “No. 1 job,” well underway, is the environmental cleanup of what was one of the world’s biggest rayon factories, an acre-by-acre process that is “almost like a search-and-rescue grid.” Also high on the list is an assessment of utility needs — gas, water, stormwater, electric, internet.

Walker likens the previous hundred years to “a giant dinner party. The table’s a mess. The next morning, you’ve got to clean that off, you’ve got to reset the table for what we hope will happen in the next century.” In another analogy, he compares the project to building a house, with various craftspeople working simultaneously — except this “house” is a hundred acres with a complex environmental history and covered with a million square feet of buildings that are a hundred years old. 

Beyond the nitty-gritty of the infrastructure, he’s also thinking about the fun stuff — bicycling, throwing Frisbees on reclaimed fields, studios and living space for artists, and whimsical touches like lighting up the old Viscose smokestacks. Many possibilities are on the table as Walker —with public input, he stresses — goes about creating an entire new neighborhood. 

Walker purchased the property — actually several contiguous properties on the city’s GIS map — from Industrial Development and Investment Co., with the closing on March 31.

Meade Anderson is manager of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s Voluntary Remediation Program.

Walker’s team applied for the program in mid-March, Anderson said. The application was for two different tracts, “the developable factory footprint area, and then an area that’s wooded and had had materials dumped on it that had some lagoons on it.” On May 15, DEQ accepted Riverdale into the program.

If the work is not finished after a year, the annual fee is $4,500 until satisfactory completion of remediation. 

The Voluntary Remediation Program was developed in 1995 by the Virginia legislature and revised in 2002. Successful completion means the federal Environmental Protection Agency has no further interest in the site.

“There’s many reasons developers choose the program,” Anderson said. “And some of it is to resolve environmental liability. It’s a powerful tool for the banks and lawyers. They get an agency sign-off and they’re able to show it to their bank, they’re able to show it to buyers, leaseholders — ‘Look, we completed a cleanup here.'”

Walker said his environmental team includes Matt Clark, chief operations officer of City Space LLC, Walker’s real estate management company; Engineering Consulting Services, Mid-Atlantic, based in Hollins; and Richmond-based environmental lawyer Jim Thornhill. 

Anderson said DEQ has approved Walker’s work plan and now the ball is in his court. His team is placing geoprobe wells 1 or 2 inches in diameter. “So the first water that could possibly become contaminated is a shallow aquifer or a shallow water table,” Anderson said. A positive result would mean “something’s been released and is now in the water. Soil is going to stay kind of in place, but groundwater is going to tend to migrate.”

The early results are “more favorable than we expected,” Walker said. “It’s like anywhere in these old industrial spaces. And certainly … anything along railroad tracks in Roanoke, Virginia, is going to have some challenges that need to be tended to. But we’re feeling fortunate. In a lot of ways, it feels like it could have been worse. You have to remember, Viscose hadn’t been here since 1958. So I think if you were trying to do this in 1960, it might be different than it is now.”

Walker said he is aiming at a cleanup job that is “platinum, as good as it can be, recognizable as exceptional and safe to the public. I’m going to be obsessed with it being healthy and clean forever. My guess is we’ll have monitoring wells for a long time.” He put the cost of the cleanup at “hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

“It’s kind of an interesting site,” Anderson said. “It’s got quite a bit of history with it … it has some real potential. It’s good when you see somebody like Ed come in because nobody else has taken an interest in this, somebody that comes in with a comprehensive plan to lay it out, to say, ‘all right, let’s open this thing up and see what the problems are and fix them, because I’ve got a bigger goal out here and it’s to reuse the property.’ And the environmental is just one piece of the puzzle.”

The utilities are a major piece. “There’s 100 years of environmental impact that’s got to be identified, removed, replaced,” Walker said. “Every kind of utility you can think of has to be tended to, and then add fiber. We’ve got to get new water lines in, we have to have upgraded electricity, we’ve got to have upgraded gas. We’ve got great colleagues in Ben Crew and Mark Pace, who know everything about underground utilities. So when you’re talking about how to get clean water in and stormwater out, Mark and Ben are incredible experts.”

Benjamin Crew is a vice president at Balzer & Associates, which is in charge of site work and civil engineering.

Mark Pace is president and owner of utility contractor E.C. Pace. He said that while upgrades and new pipes will be needed, he’s not too worried about the water or sewer. In the past few years, while Riverdale was still the Roanoke Industrial Center, the Western Virginia Water Authority upgraded water with 100-year ductile iron pipes of 8 to 12 inch diameter. Pace’s company did some of the installation. The waterline circles the property along the loop road. Sewage drains toward the main sewer line by the Roanoke River. 

Storm drainage is the number one issue, because some of the buildings are in the 100-year floodplain and others are just above it. 

Several buildings in Carilion Clinic’s low-lying Riverside complex, not far from Riverdale, were built with parking on the ground floor to minimize damage should Jefferson Street flood. “But Riverdale, in general, is already fixed,” Pace said. “So then you have to figure out what are you going to do? What’s the use of the building? Does it matter if it floods? Are you going to make that parking? Is there a way we can upgrade a storm drain system to shut off pipes from the river pushing reverse up the storm drain?”

It helps that the city stormwater division has recently installed new storm drain lines to intercept water that otherwise would have drained into Riverdale from a bluff above the railroad tracks to the north. “They are pushing water away from that area, moving it towards the river instead of down to Riverdale,” Pace said. “I think they’re doing a good job grabbing any other potential water that might push in that direction rather than just what hits the ground.”

The Army Corps of Engineers completed a flood mitigation project on the Roanoke River in 2012. But that is not a guarantee that Riverdale, or other locations in the 100-year flood plain, will never be submerged.

“You really couldn’t feasibly build a flood reduction project that large, it would just be way too expensive,” said Marcus Aguilar, a civil engineer II with Roanoke’s stormwater division. “It would take way too much land.”

The Corps project was designed to contain 25-year floods. The modifications to the river banks will help with larger floods, but “you don’t want to convey to the public that that project was designed to completely eliminate flooding under anything larger than what it was designed for.”

In any given year there is a 4% chance of a 25-year flood, and a 1% chance of a 100-year flood. “It’s just a statistical way of thinking about flooding,” Aguilar said.

The city has submitted revised flood plain maps, based on the Corps project, to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for approval. Aguilar referred specific questions on whether the revisions will affect Riverdale to Jillian Moore, acting director of the city’s planning, building and development department. Moore did not respond to an email.

All the work on utilities at Riverdale is taking place around the business of existing tenants. Of the approximately 140 tenants Walker inherited, around 110 remain. He described them as “interesting, honorable, conscientious folks doing cool work, and we want to keep them. We don’t want this to be a gentrification project.”

He did not raise rents, but did ask tenants to do three things: pay on time; be nice and not difficult; and keep their spaces tidy. “And some folks said, ‘I won’t do that and I’m leaving.’ But a lot of people said, ‘Yes, it’s looking a lot better.'”

Some of the clients are removing their own junk if it has salvage value and taking it to recyclers like Cycle Systems. Otherwise Walker’s crews haul it away.

Walker would like to see apartments and studios for artists at Riverdale and has contracted Artspace to do a feasibility study in September. Based in Minneapolis, Artspace describes itself as “a nonprofit arts organization specializing in creating, owning, and operating affordable spaces for artists and creative businesses. These spaces include live/work apartments for artists and their families, working artist studios, arts centers, commercial space for arts-friendly businesses, and other projects.”

“They’ve never done a project in Virginia,” Walker said. “I think we’ve got a shot at this. The feasibility study is expensive. The project was happy to pay for it. … I really, really want an Artspace project at Riverdale.”

Another artistic touch might be added by Helen Marriage, co-founder of Artichoke, an English nonprofit that stages art events. “Helen is an old friend,” Walker said. “She’s very excited about this. Helen’s definitely going to have a hand in the illumination.” As an example of illumination, he envisions projecting things onto the smokestacks at night.

Also in the mix are sports, outdoors and recreation facilities for bicycling and climbing, activities involving the river and greenway, and a food and beverage location at the project’s public face on Ninth Street.  

In July, Walker’s team sent out requests for proposals to master planning firms. The master planning process will begin probably in the middle of September. Walker foresees community engagement meetings to solicit ideas and feedback. 

“You just take every idea and aspiration and you put it up on the board. And you figure out what’s feasible, what’s needed, and you try to take the city’s strategic plan and comp[rehensive] plan, and figure out what’s in the sweet spot of the Venn diagram. The hope is to have as many sort of authorial voices as possible. Neighborhoods do better when there are more development voices. And so it needs to be more of a mosaic and less of a solo thing.

“One hundred days, you can’t know exactly what that pathway is. And so that uncertainty … we deal with that all the time. And we’re very comfortable with it. And it’s very fluid and dynamic. You have to reimagine and you have to be willing to spend some money that may not ever have a return on investment, or it may have a very long horizon.”

Randy Walker is a musician and freelance writer in Roanoke. He received a bachelor's degree in journalism...