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In , fewer than 50 people lived downtown. That swelled to nearly 1, by , and nearly 1, today. The new downtown , in the heart of a historic district, came about from a convergence of factors. Federal and state historic tax credits provided adventurous developers with a lifeline of capital during the Great Recession.

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Government investment in ventures paved the way for private investors. And a generational shift from home ownership to apartment rentals has solidified demand for the new residences in the redeveloping area. Private developers built luxury flats in the spaces above first-floor businesses of other nearby buildings.

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The first really affordable apartments arrived in , when the city housing authority redeveloped a pair of former Norfolk-Southern office buildings just north of the tracks. One was turned into an adult education center that offered collegiate and job training programs, and the other renovated into an unit apartment building called Eight Jefferson Place. What are we going to do?

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In a period of identity crisis, as part of that long slow march of the railroad moving out, they took those buildings and look what happened. The public investment into downtown rental apartments at Eight Jefferson Place blazed a trail into an urban frontier that was home to a handful of condominiums, but otherwise few residences.


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Developer Ed Walker decided to convert the Hancock Building, a former piano and furniture store, into apartments. He financed the project in part through the use of historic tax credits, which had previously been used by the city and Virginia Tech in a collaborative effort to restore the Hotel Roanoke. In retrospect, the grant looks like a good investment. It enabled Walker to complete the restoration, which he followed with a series of other successful redevelopment projects.

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The use of syndicated historic tax credits became a model for other developers who followed with similar projects. The population growth came from those larger buildings with 80 or 90 smaller apartments in them, not just six or eight luxury ones. The other thing is, it activated an underutilized project in an important place. The apartment boom has even bled over from rehabilitation of old buildings into construction of new ones , because rental rates are now high enough for developers to justify it.

Downtown Roanoke Inc. But still, those costs are rising, especially as the downtown boom has spilled into neighboring areas. The railroad has long served as an especially hard barrier, dividing the commercial district downtown from Gainsboro, a historic black neighborhood that predates Roanoke itself. In the midth century, urban renewal projects destroyed significant swaths of the neighborhood and its Henry Street business district , which participated in the Harlem Renaissance.

Today, multiple Gainsboro neighborhood groups fiercely protect the neighborhood against perceived encroachment. Other projects have moved forward since then, but despite city efforts to market a parcel located at a key gateway to Gainsboro, the neighborhood has resisted government-sponsored incursions that run against its historic character.

How a Downtown Revival Reshaped Roanoke, Virginia - CityLab

Even so, Brenda Allen, who leads the Historic Gainsboro Preservation District neighborhood group, said she has seen changes stemming from the new residents across the tracks, including an increased number of white homebuyers and cars parked on Gainsboro streets by people visiting the downtown business district.

The blocks west of downtown, on what used to mark the urban frontier, have changed more dramatically. The biggest factor in transforming Salem Avenue was Bill Chapman , who had managed more than 15 adaptive reuse projects in Richmond before diving into Roanoke. He successfully reworked a former auto dealership and large warehouse into condominiums and apartments, attracting new residents who flipped the neighborhood narrative. Today Salem Avenue is home to apartment buildings, a high-end tequila bar, an expansive local craft brewery and a handful of yoga, CrossFit and martial arts studios, along with earlier remnants such as a homeless shelter and electrical substation.

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