The main building at the old American Viscose plant, showing three of the site's four smokestacks. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.
The main building at the old American Viscose plant, showing three of the site's four smokestacks. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

Walking through the maze of side alleys and hidden courtyards, past a graveyard of broken railroad cars and a massive Tyrannosaurus rex statue, Ed Walker can make the industrial park along the bank of the Roanoke River come to life once more. 

Instead of an abandoned warehouse, he sees a recreational center, or possibly a music hall. The 80-foot silo is an empty canvas begging to be illuminated with a nighttime light display. He can see hard-working Roanokers toasting to the end of the week with live music while reclining on what’s now a dilapidated porch that’s barely clinging to the side of a building.  

Walker has a vision for the 100 acres and one million square feet — with an additional million square feet underground — where the old American Viscose Plant once stood. And he’s bringing in groups from around the country to make it happen. 

One of them is Artspace, a nonprofit based in Minneapolis that specializes in designing and transforming spaces into affordable housing for artists and businesses. Representatives from the group visited Roanoke in September to conduct a feasibility study to determine if the city would be suitable for one of their projects. Over the course of their three-day trip, they toured potential sites, held focus groups, engaged with members of the art world and hosted a community meeting. 

“We looked at four different sites in the community, not necessarily to pick one, but to see where the interest is,” said Wendy Holmes, senior vice president of consulting at Artspace and a member of the Roanoke delegation. “Where’s the potential? The information that we received from the community was that there’s a very strong desire for dedicated space for the creative community, that there are several neighborhoods where a project like the kind we’re talking about would be a big boost to those neighborhoods.”

Holmes emphasized that while Walker invited the group to Roanoke, the Artspace team examined other potential areas outside of Riverdale, such as the closed Walker Machine and Foundry building in Norwich, the Goodwill building on Melrose Avenue and areas along Williamson Road.

The space they examined at Riverdale ranged between 60,000 and 100,000 square feet, according to Walker. They decided that Riverdale represents their best opportunity for various reasons, and Walker himself is No. 1 on that list.  

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

“[Riverdale is] a site that is owned by someone who deeply cares for the community and deeply cares for the creative community,” said Holmes. “That is somewhat rare to find — an owner of a site that also cares about the creative sector.”

Walker purchased the property from Industrial Development and Investment Co. in April. He reached an agreement with the Roanoke Economic Development Authority in January; the city pledged to secure a $10 million loan for the redevelopment endeavor, which Walker plans to invest another $50 million into over the next 17 years. Though the hundred or so current tenants will remain, the lawyer-turned-developer dreams of turning the abandoned, sprawling factory site into a new borough of Roanoke with commercial, residential, industrial and artistic properties.

Artspace released a summary of its trip to Roanoke, in which it said that the representatives identified a local desire for affordable housing as well as private and shared working studios. Before traveling to the city, Artspace conducted a focus study with local artists to get a sense of where they’re interested in living as well as what challenges they face, such as access to food, childcare and internet, according to the Artspace statement. The visitors also held focus groups with members of Roanoke’s minority arts community and with government officials, financial groups and other key stakeholders like Carilion Clinic and Virginia Tech.

“We strongly believe in the synergy between Artspace’s mission and Ed’s belief in the importance of providing affordable spaces for the creative sector,” concluded the statement. “Imagine a diverse array of mixed-use spaces, featuring both market-rate and affordable housing, as well as a vibrant range of commercial options. From our perspective, this site represents an opportunity to ensure affordability for both the existing community and those who may have faced displacement due to recent real estate pressures. Together, we can create a thriving and inclusive cultural hub that benefits everyone in the neighborhood.” 

The pinnacle of Artspace’s visit was a community meeting held in one of Riverdale’s many warehouses, where more than a hundred artists and city leaders had a chance to engage with the development group. Roanoke’s art and culture coordinator, Douglas Jackson, was critical to building relationships between the two groups. 

“We’ve been working hard there through the Roanoke Arts Commission over the last couple of years to really focus on individual artists and their role in making the community a better place,” said Jackson. “A big part of what we did was try to help bring people into the meetings that Artspace wanted to hold, and they wanted to talk to specific groups of people. I enjoyed listening to the conversations and hearing perspectives of folks thinking about the future and how we provide even more access to affordable housing and creative space in the community.”

Soon after the visit, Artspace announced that it is moving to the second phase of its development process. This market study will involve an online study aimed at Roanoke’s art community so the company can get a better understanding of its needs. 

“What kinds of space do they need?” said Holmes. “If they can afford to pay? How much space do they need? Do they need residential space? Do they need a shared space? Do they need private studio space? Do they need space for their organization?”

Based on an economic impact study Artspace conducted on one of its earliest projects, providing artists — whom they loosely define as people who self-identify as a “creative” — with affordable living and working spaces benefits not only the individuals, but also the greater community. Because these projects often redevelop old structures for their projects, they put properties back on tax rolls. Holmes said Artspace has found that supporting creative people leads to street beautification and increased political engagement among this demographic. 

“Artists may end up making more money from their creative pursuits as a result of being in these supportive environments, where they’re around like-minded people who are supporting their initiatives,” she said. “It’s pretty rare for an artist to make 100% of their income from their art. Only 10% of artists nationally make 100% of their income from their art. But what we’ve seen is that people make a larger percentage of their income from their creative pursuits after living in these buildings.”

Walker has also reached out to other luminaries in the fields of art and design for inspiration. Christian Sottile, a professor of architecture and urban design at Savannah College of Art and Design, created a drawing of the site’s potential look. Walker also called upon his “old pal” Helen Marriage, the artistic director of the U.K.’s leading independent art company, Artichoke, whom he knows from their days as Loeb Fellows at Harvard University, to assist on the silo lighting project. 

Marriage is widely known for shutting down the streets of London over the span of four days in May 2006 as Artichoke coordinated “The Sultan’s Elephant,” a massive puppet elephant walking alongside a 24-foot little girl. The display drew millions together in the streets and on screens — ”a universal invitation to people to just come and be delighted,” as Marriage said in an interview with Resilience — nine months after suicide bombings had devastated the city, leaving 56 dead and hundreds injured.  

“She’s an amazing source of ideas herself,” said Walker. “She’s at the confluence of so much amazing, illumination art so, first, I want to get her here. I do want one of Riverdale’s notable reputation-makers to be just how interesting the illumination is. So when I settled on that, it was just obvious to get Helen to help.” 

Artspace plans to begin publicizing its market study in early 2024, and Walker this week announced that Richmond-based Baskervill will serve as the overall Riverdale project’s master planning firm. Baskervill knows Roanoke, Walker noted; among its projects there are the Lofts at West Station, Big Lick Brewing Co. and Fulton Motor Lofts, according to its website.

The master-planning process will take five to six months, Walker said. Baskervill has experience in collaborating with local communities on projects, he said, which will be important as his team works to engage both Southeast Roanoke and the region as a whole in Riverdale’s transformation. He said he expects public-input meetings will start in January.

“I mean, it’s kind of funny,” said Walker, asked how he felt about tackling his largest project. “We do a big project every 18 to 24 months. And this is just like, dude, it’s taking on 10 of them in advance.”

One of the buildings at the old American Viscose plant. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.
One of the buildings at the old American Viscose plant. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

Emily Hemphill is a freelance journalist from Elliston. She received a bachelor's degree in political...