The standing room only neighborhood meeting last week was the first in what will be a series of pubic hearings and work sessions held to consider the application for rezoning the old Blacksburg Middle School property on Main Street.
Midtown Development Partners filed its latest application in April. While Blacksburg residents both near and not so near the site registered worry about unavoidable increases in car traffic, neighboring business owners voiced welcome and support anticipating greater foot traffic.
The meeting was an opportunity for the applicant, represented by Jim Cowan, chairman of the Cowan Perry Law Firm, to present the rezoning proposal to develop commercial, residential and civic space in the 24 acres that the marketing material calls “Midtown.”
The Blacksburg website describes the meeting as an opportunity to involve the public early in the rezoning application process. The presentation is a resubmission following last fall’s initial submission and community feedback.
Changes included moving a proposed new library to a more prominent Eheart Street side of the property and screening parking areas.
The meeting was a neatly choreographed evening that distributed colorful site plan cards at the door to let the audience follow along with the 30-minute Powerpoint presentation and a fly-through animated video describing the mixed-use commercial and civic future of the land.
“Blacksburg is growing,” Cowan led with, raising the spectre of a predicted 400 new Virginia Tech faculty members, 200 full-time professionals, 5000 students slated to arrive in Blacksburg over the next decade.
“Those folks are coming. And where are we going to put them? The good news is we live in a town that works to plan for and accommodate growth,” he said.
In the meeting that lasted two and a half hours, much of the time was given to questions and answers organized in commercial, residential and parking and traffic topics.
Neighbor Peg Fisher lives on the corner of Eheart and Church streets across from what is now the vast grassy, tree-filled field, was concerned about the increase in traffic and noise.
“Will there be any bars?” she said. “In my experience, bars generate drunk people. Drunk people and noise.”
Cowan said that was his experience too and that, while the hotel would probably have a bar, the restaurants expected for the Main Street frontage were not late night types.
“People have said to us they thought this might be the ‘grown-up end of town’,” he said.
Residential development will include apartments, condos, townhouses and single-family homes. Throughout the presentation, Cowan reiterated the effort to thwart student renters with requirements like the number of rooms and baths, and income levels.
Two acres of the property will be public green space, and a bike path, in coordination with the town’s strategic plan, but traffic and pedestrian safety, despite these walkable/bikeable goals, remained a central concern.
The multi-phase development would be carried out over nearly ten years, although little was said about the ramifications of a decade of perpetual construction in the middle of town.
Several neighboring businesses voiced support for the development plans and a short video was presented interviewing local business owners.
“There’s never going to be one plan that everyone’s going to love, let alone like,” Chris Belluzzo of South Main Chiropractic, whose Clay Court building he describes as “literally a stone’s throw away,” said.
Belluzzo had attended earlier Master Plan and neighborhood meetings that have gone on since 2011.
He said he’s had his office on Main Street for 10 years, but it was never feasible for him to live, eat, work and play right here,” laughing that his effusive impromptu explanation sounded canned.
“They [the development] have what I’m looking for,” he said.
And he’s not worried about a decade of construction during the multiple phases of build out of the site.
“At times there will be headaches: a diverted or a closed road, but I’m willing and able to handle inconvenience in the short run for the return in the long run,” he said.
Main Street Pharmacy is half a block from the property. Owner Jeremy Counts, a 2004 Blacksburg High School graduate, agreed with the presentation that the development, targeting young professionals to work and live there, would benefit downtown.
“I think it’s a great thing,” he said “Young professionals want to live down here. We’ll have more houses and businesses. We need to keep business downtown. As a business owner, it will benefit me as well as as a community member.”
He and others noted an increase in foot traffic would also be boosted.
“People who want to just walk to their neighborhood chiropractor and having that availability and convenience, that’s a good thing. It’s going to be a more walking town. That’s the beauty of it,” he said.
As phase one, public amenities and infrastructure like stormwater management systems will go in first Cowan said.
Although a new library is figured prominently in the multicolor cards and handsome pattern book, whether the Montgomery-Floyd Regional Library could afford a new building was not clarified at the meeting although the system’s Director Karim Khan was present.
Khan said later in an email that a 2016 feasibility study indicated that the Blacksburg Public Library’s current 1995 mechanical systems are reaching the end of their effective lives, parking is sometimes inadequate as are the public program spaces recognizing that a new library would allow MFRL to strengthen its role in the community.
“It [Midtown] does seem like it would be great place for a library; and the library would be good for rest of the development too,” Khan wrote. “We’re honored to be included in the plans, but the needs of the Blacksburg Library and the Feasibility Study predate Midtown’s proposal, and the Board of Trustees and I are committed to improving library service and pursuing the goals of the Feasibility Study regardless of location.”
Overall, in a comment through its marketing company, Midtown said the meeting went well.
“We feel good about the meeting. We appreciated the many thoughtful comments and specific questions, and valued the opportunity to address them. It’s obvious how much Blacksburg cares about this space. If people have additional questions or concerns, we hope they reach out to us,” Jim Cowan wrote.
Public comment from this neighborhood meeting and online comments will be collected into a staff report presented to the town council and the planning commission. The applicant will again present its rezoning proposal at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, July 3 at the Blacksburg Motor Company Building (400 S. Main St., Blacksburg).
A public hearing in which the Planning Commission will make its recommendation to the Town Council is tentatively scheduled for July 31, according to the town website.
To follow the schedule of meetings and hearings, visit the town’s OBMS-dedicated webpage: www.blacksburg.gov/town-council/meetings/public-hearings/old-blacksburg-middle-school-rezoning.