Evans Spring sits across Interstate 581 from Valley View Mall. At about 150 acres, it’s often described as the largest piece of undeveloped land in the city of Roanoke.
For years, city officials and citizens have mulled the future of the land, which includes woods and wetlands — an oasis in a sea of pavement.
Community engagement work conducted over the last year about Evans Spring found “significant opposition to development,” Veronica Fleming told the Roanoke City Council at a June 20 meeting.
Citizens want to preserve the environment, wildlife and water at Evans Spring, Fleming, a Richmond-based consultant who helped with the effort to take the community’s temperature, said at the meeting. Others worry about traffic and gentrification if the land is developed, according to Fleming.
Odds that the acreage will remain untouched seem slim, however.
At that same city council meeting, Bill Mechnick, president of Land Planning & Design Associates, the firm Roanoke officials hired in 2022 to draft a master plan for Evans Spring, gave a progress report to the council on its efforts.
Mayor Sherman Lea asked him whether the city could stop the individual owners from developing the land.
“No,” Mechnick answered definitively.
So that raises the question: What future do the landowners see at Evans Spring?
Anderson Douthat IV owns Allegheny Construction Co. Inc. with his brother John Douthat. Their father launched the highway contracting business in 1963.
Another family company, Fincastle Equipment Co., purchased 15 acres in Evans Spring in 1997 to have a source of dirt when Allegheny Construction began work building a second Interstate 581 interchange for Valley View Mall.
Fincastle Equipment picked up another 31 acres in Evans Spring in 2000 and another family company, Ardmore One LLC, purchased another 14 acres there in 2005.
They didn’t buy the land with any plans in mind, according to Douthat. “We had a Realtor come to us and say, ‘Hey, there’s 30 acres … the lady would like to sell it.’ We said, ‘Well, OK.’”
A Washington, D.C., company, Heritage Acres LLC, owns another 28 acres of Evans Spring.
The Heritage Acres land stems from the mid-1970s when a developer tried to build a subdivision there.
“They put streets in,” said Chris Chittum, the city’s executive director of community development and placemaking. “They cut the lots off. And only about 10 houses were developed. And so you’ve got all these other lots that are vacant.”
“Water and sewer were put in and everything was done,” explained Peter Cooper, a D.C.-based consultant for Heritage Acres. “And the people that were doing the project went bankrupt. And so we inherited it, because we had financed a lot of the acquisitions.”
Cooper estimates that 70 or 80 lots were created.
The Katherine Huff Trust owns another 38 acres in Evans Spring, and Joe Walker Ramsey of Roanoke owns about 19 acres there. Neither a representative for the trust nor Ramsey responded to requests for comment for this story.
“Obviously, the landowners would like to sell the property instead of just looking at it,” Douthat said.
Speaking for himself as the largest Evans Spring property owner, Douthat talked about how it would be a boon for Roanoke to finally develop this large piece of land that sits adjacent to the interstate and at the center of the “population mass for the Roanoke Valley.”
“I just think of how many people would be working there and I think that the tax revenue that the city would generate for the next umpteen years,” he said. “A piece of property like that right off the interstate … that’s an asset.”
An unsuccessful development bid
Around 2010, the Virginia Department of Transportation began to design a plan for how to complete construction of the Valley View Boulevard interchange. In anticipation of that construction, city officials drafted an area plan for Evans Spring that city council members adopted in 2013.
“So basically, what we said back in the 2013 plan is, ‘Yeah, we’re open to the property being developed for a variety of different uses,” Chittum said. “But we want to develop it with a certain quality, if you will, and not have it kind of walled off from the neighborhood like Valley View was.”
That effort attracted controversy. At a 2011 meeting about Evans Spring, Estelle McCadden, a neighborhood advocate who died in 2022 said, “The city can do what they want to do for whoever they want to do it,” according to a story in The Roanoke Times.
The distrust stems from urban renewal in Roanoke, which began in the mid 1950s. Hundreds of homes owned by Black residents were destroyed in the name of progress, which included the civic center and Interstate 581.
Michelle Gaither expressed that distrust during a March neighborhood meeting held as part of the development of the Evans Spring master plan. She spoke about her grandparents whose home was destroyed and replaced with the civic center. “We have absolutely no interest in repeating that whatsoever,” she says.
The biggest swing at developing Evans Spring came in 2019, when Charlotte-based Pavilion Development Co. unveiled plans for a major development on the land. The developers envisioned building a wholesale warehouse, a golf attraction and an apartment complex.
That vision was met with criticism from citizens, particularly residents of the adjacent neighborhoods of Melrose-Rugby, Fairland and Villa Heights, and from Roanoke’s planning commissioners.
Lora Katz, a planning commissioner at that time who now lives in Florida, remembers the plans prompting a heated discussion.
“Because of the topography of the site, there were giant retaining walls, which would have been not only bordering 581, but also bordering houses very closely,” Katz, a retired architect, wrote in a message. “So a very small ranch house might have a 60-foot high retaining wall right next to it.”
The planning commissioners, according to Katz, would have welcomed a plan that fit Evans Spring. “We were definitely pro-development in that area,” she said.
Pavilion Development withdrew the project.
“It’s something that the surrounding community didn’t want,” Cooper said.
Seeking a middle ground
After the 2020 plan fell through, Cooper and Douthat talked with city officials about how to proceed. “To understand what it is that we can do,” Cooper said.
In 2022, the city council voted to spend $75,000, to be combined with equal amounts contributed by the Economic Development Authority and the three largest landowners. The money went to pay LPDA $215,517 for the master plan, according to Chittum, who expects that to be ready in November.
“So that’s what we’re working on, trying to find a middle ground where everybody can be happy,” Cooper said. “And we can sell these properties and get our money and walk away.”
Chittum sees the master plan as a continuation of the 2013 plan. “Because that plan was really general and didn’t get into specifics,” he said.
The master plan will be more defined, according to Chittum.
“It will specify that residential uses of this type go here,” he said. “And small shops of this type go in this area. Big box would go in this other area, that type of thing.”
The landowners see that residents of the surrounding communities do not want a “monstrous shopping plaza” at Evans Spring, Cooper acknowledged, but he said they also understand “there’s going to have to be some commercial stuff there.”
To Cooper, a middle ground would look like “some housing, maybe some senior housing, and some commercial and maybe create a small town center like environment for the neighborhood.”
Douthat said he has heard from business owners who are interested in the property but declined to be more specific. “I don’t have anything in writing from any of them,” he said.
Once the city receives the master plan, Chittum explained in an email, “the owners and perhaps a developer will need to determine if they wish to proceed to a rezoning process.”
“We would recommend continuing community engagement at that point,” he added.
Cooper expects to work with Douthat and a representative from the trust to find an interested developer once the master plan is out.
“It is quite valuable since it’s right next to an interstate,” Cooper said of the land. “Big developers are very interested in it.”
In the past, the Evans Spring land owners all priced their property separately, according to Cooper.
“But, you know, it was $300,000 or $400,000 an acre,” he said. “But that was going to be for a large tract, commercial development, and I don’t think it’s going to be possible this time around.”
The trick, according to Cooper, will be to find a developer who’s interested in moving forward within the parameters of the master plan.
“If they’re going to limit the amount of commercial development, these bigger developers are not going to be interested in this property at all,” he said. “So we might have to break it up and to sell pieces off to different types of developers. That’s going to be a nuisance.”
Landowners could also develop the property as it is currently zoned, Chittum allows.
For Heritage Acres, that would mean reverting to the original plan for the land.
“We can always go back and say, ‘OK, folks enough of this,’” Cooper said. “We already have the sewer and water and everything in for the [subdivision]. Let us just build the houses and stop this nonsense.”
Chittum pointed out in an email, however, that the infrastructure for that subdivision “is deteriorated.”
“The streets, water lines, sanitary sewer, storm drains and the like have been sitting unmaintained for many decades and would need considerable reconstruction,” he wrote. “The City would expect the developer to fund reconstruction of the streets and utilities.”
The remaining Evans Spring property is mostly zoned residential-agricultural. That, Chittum explained, is “very, very low-density development.”
He doesn’t think the owners will use the land in that way. “If somebody wanted to do that, they probably would have by now,” Chittum said.
The impact on homes
About a dozen homes, occupied by a mix of renters and owners on Top Hill Drive, sit up against the Evans Spring property.
The owners of several of those homes said they’d spoken with the Charlotte developer about selling their property in 2019 or 2020.
Douthat says those houses aren’t necessarily going to be part of the development this time around.
“If somebody said, ‘I don’t want to sell,’ then nobody is going to force anybody to sell,” he says.
A developer, Douthat says, could simply “work around” those homes.
Ricardo Ramey purchased a home on Top Hill Drive in 2005 when his mother was living in it. He now rents the property.
He’d sell the house to a developer — for the right price. “I don’t want to slow progress,” he said, “if it’s going to be something that’s going to help the surrounding community.”
Ramey would be OK with the Evans Spring property staying as it is, too. “It’s status quo for me,” he said.
Marien Alvarez Escalona purchased a house on Top Hill Drive in 2022 and lives there with her husband and two children. “I like this area because it’s very quiet for my kids,” she said.
Escalona heard a neighbor talk about the possibility of businesses being built in the Evans Spring area. If that happens, she isn’t sure whether she’d sell her house to a developer. She doesn’t think any changes to Evans Spring will occur anytime soon.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Escalona said, “so I don’t worry about it yet.”