What’s the origin of your interest in the Riverdale property?
I’ve been interested in trying to work in Southeast for about 15 years but couldn't figure out the best way to do it to have the impact I hoped for - to have enough scale. I’ve always been drawn to Southeast, and I liked that end of 9th Street because of the RIC [Roanoke Industrial Center], and because of its proximity to Mill Mountain, Carilion, the greenway, Roanoke River, downtown, the core of Southeast etc.
The RIC site itself has been near and dear to me since my early 20s. I’ve driven it regularly, admired the buildings, imagined various uses - all the many interesting potential public and private uses. Remarkably, it’s only had 2 owners in the last 105 years. For the next 100 years, it seems to me that it could have lots more uses in addition to the great foundational tenants that it has today. RIC management has done a terrific job of setting the stage for this by attracting lots of interesting people and uses - TXTUR, Southwest Virginia Ballet, Center in the Square, fabricators, makers, and many others.
In 2018 I was able to buy one building on the RIC campus and began working on a residential and mixed-use concept for that. Along with RIC management and Will Trinkle, we got the building and the site listed on the National Register of Historic Places. I quickly realized that my one building wasn’t large enough to have the effect I wanted, or to affect the status quo. Then in November of 2022 the RIC ownership indicated that they would be amenable to considering a sale, and it moved very quickly after that.
An important note: I have current projects that are already underway in Salem and Danville. They are well along the development process and have clear pathways with financing and construction underway. While they are finishing, we will be working on Riverdale’s master plan, cleanup, etc. Thereafter, Riverdale will be the focus of my work, and will be the last project of my career. It will take many, many years.
Riverdale is a once-in-a-century, timely, high-quality, transformational project. To me it is a “dream come true” public/private redevelopment opportunity in one of the best locations in the city. It has a great history, and is possibly the largest collection of unrehabilitated historic buildings in the city.
What roles did City management, City Council, and the Economic Development Authority play?
The project would not happen without the foresight, creativity, investment and partnership of the City. Because of Riverdale’s existing conditions, the site isn’t bankable. The rise in interest rates and other macroeconomic headwinds created huge additional challenges. So, without the City’s partnership it wouldn’t have worked.
City management and Council quickly understood the opportunity and had the vision to see the possibilities, and the same with the EDA. So everyone has pulled together quickly to get this figured out and ready to roll beginning with the property purchase closing in April of 2023.
What’s the Performance Agreement and Public/Private Partnership all about?
It’s a $60 million public/private partnership using local investment that’s focused on more than just the bottom line. I want it to dramatically benefit the community. The City will invest $10 million, and I will assure that another $50 million or more is invested. Local partners are often better than ones from out of town. According to Chmura Analytics, even the first part of the development plan will create hundreds of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars of economic impact. Ideally there will be many follow-on agreements and projects. It will be interesting to see what the true impact is ten years from now - just like we couldn't have imagined how well Wasena would ultimately do, or Grandin for that matter.
As it did with downtown, Wasena and Grandin, it will take 10+ years to get Riverdale fully actualized. I always remind myself to ask - “What if we did nothing? What if we didn't strain to figure out a way to acquire it; what if we just took our chances on who the next owner might be and what their plans are? That site, those buildings and that neighborhood are too special and important to take that risk.” That was definitely true in downtown, in Wasena and in Grandin, and it is true here.
Many of the most high-functioning and performance-oriented municipalities regularly pursue public/private partnerships for projects that otherwise would be impossible.
What do you think of the RIC businesses and tenants?
I very much admire and respect the RIC management and staff for the work they have done, and I look forward to learning from them. The RIC full-time staff will remain with the project - they will become employees of City Space, LLC, the company that manages my other projects like the Patrick Henry, River House, etc.
I have a lot of respect for Southeast in general, including the industrial park and its tenants and businesses. I respect the folks using their time, talent and capital to make products and offer services. I want the good ones to keep on thriving and having a positive impact on the neighborhood and the city. I am not as interested in a handful of tenants that seem to leave debris around the site, and I’d like to see some of that cleaned up. I’d like to keep the park’s authenticity, great history and energy, and add some new uses to the mix too. I love the vibe and energy it has, and that will be the anchor as we go forward. My vision is to take the best of its past and present, and its legacy, and figure a way to make something even better for the coming decades.
Is a site with that many challenges feasible to redevelop?
Obviously it's a challenging site to work with: thousands of tons of debris, a hard industrial history, and entirely in the floodplain. But figuring out those puzzles and wrestling with the challenges is part of the fun. It’s a fantastic place. In some ways it's worn out after 105 years, and in other ways - like TXTUR, Southwest Virginia Ballet, etc - it’s never been more interesting. But it needs a lot of attention and investment, and for its utilities to be updated for the next 100 years, and I look forward to being the steward for that process.
Immediately in February of 2023 we took steps to begin a gold-standard process for evaluating any environmental improvements and/or remediation that will be required or recommended. Extensive testing will be done, and we have already hired a team of environmental consultants to advise this process. We voluntarily approached Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality to work closely with them as partners to make sure the site is absolutely clean, safe and suitable for any and everyone and all of our public-oriented purposes going forward.
It is our intent to be very transparent and we hope that Riverdale will be an exemplar for how responsible private ownership addresses brownfield history by working with government programs to create positive public outcomes.
What do you plan to do?
Clean it up some. Hire engineers, planners and project managers. Hire architects. Assess the existing condition of systems and structures. Begin a year-long master planning process to get input from the neighborhood, tenants and other stakeholders. Our opportunity is to set the stage for the next 100 years, so it has to be done to the highest standards. I’d like to see a combination of new construction and historic rehabilitation - lots of uses emphasizing health, fitness, recreation, education, enterprise, arts and culture, manufacturing, fabrication, housing, food and beverage.
How do you feel about the project?
I’m humbled to have this opportunity, and I am enthusiastic about it. It is a dream come true. It will be the focus of my last project in my career, and it will take that long - it will take 5,10,15 years - but we’ll start cleaning up and planning for the future immediately. It will take a lot of collaborators, and I look forward to co-creating places that will benefit Southeast in particular and Roanoke in general.
So, what happens next?
A whole lot of patience, planning, cleanup, and steady progress. I’d love to create the time and conditions - space, economics, and leadership - to gin up a process like Roanoke did with Design ‘79 in downtown. The scale of Riverdale is larger, and I think the opportunity for impact is similar.
From January through March we will be working with current RIC management to make sure the integration and new processes go smoothly. We want to communicate well and often with the tenants, the community stakeholders, and outside consultants to create a solid initial plan. In early April the closing will occur, and we will begin. We will welcome tenants to stay who want to be a part of Riverdale and its bright and healthy future.