As former City Economic Development Director I am aware that the City and DRI used to conduct an annual census of downtown workers. I left the City in 1995 and my memory is that there were around 20,000+ people employed downtown. My guess is that less than half of that number exist today.
A part of those previous 10,000 downtown employees were retail employees. Retailers often locate where large numbers of workers and tourists exist. Unfortunately, it takes a large number of residences to support the level of previous downtown retailers. Our downtown would probably need 10 times the numbers of residents we have downtown to support anywhere near the level of retail we once had downtown.
One only has to visit downtown during the workday Monday-Friday to see how empty the streets and sidewalks are – especially out of the City Market area. As the saying goes you could roll a bowling bowl down Jefferson Street during the work day and not hit anyone. At night and especially on the weekends downtown is much more lively especially in the City Market area which allows some level of retail to remain there.
As some people may know I served on Roanoke City Council for 4 years and I was on the short end of many 5-2 or 6-1 votes. One of the Counsel actions I opposed was requiring the City’s transportation or Parking-fund to pay for the entire cost of operating downtown garages including debt service for new and renovated parking garages.
Parking garages are part of our City’s infrastructure and the debt service should be paid out of the City’s General-fund. The only way for the City’s Parking-fund to pay for the increased debt service for new and improved parking garages was to increase parking rates. I was concerned that we would chase employers out of downtown with our ever increasing parking rates.
City government decisions like this often have unintended consequences and the only remaining retail area left downtown is the City Market area so we need to be especially careful of decisions we make there.
Far too often Roanoke City government tries to fix problems that either do not exist or they identify the wrong problem. Sadly, this is especially true of some of our few remaining iconic City buildings and spaces.
For example, I was told the reason we needed a new $15 million+ fire station in Old SW was because firefighters “had to back the fire-trucks up into a small truck bay at historic Fire Station #1. Having to back-up a fire-truck into a small truck-bay is not enough of a problem for the City to spend $15 million on an unnecessary new station.
Even sadder we now have an empty historic fire station. When I worked in economic development at the City we would give tours of downtown to various types of business prospects, developers and retailers. One of our regular lines to pitch Roanoke was when we passed the historic fire station we would say this is one of the oldest continuously operating fire station in the Country. Sadly because we addressed a problem that really did not exist we cannot say that anymore.
The same thing can be said about the City Market building. What problem were we trying to fix with a renovation? The food court had become iconic. Whenever I had business or personal visitors the first place that I took them was to the food court in the Market Building. A substantial amount of City money needed to be spent on the Market Building but to fix a completely different problem than we did.
The problem was not the food court layout or the vendors. People loved them both. The problem was that we needed to fix the building infrastructure (plumbing, electric etc.) that was in desperate need of repair but mostly out of sight of customers.
In addition, the hope was that with the renovation we could not only keep the vendors but expand the size of the food court so more small vendors could be accommodated. That was exactly what the proposed DRI renovation would have accomplished but the proposal was trashed by the City.
So $6-$10 million later what problem did we solve? We chased away most of the previous food court vendors, we eliminated much of the food court layout such that we actually ended up with much less rentable commercial space on the ground floor and we created a completely sterile atmosphere. Like with the historic fire station, I no longer take visitors through the Market Building.
Now here goes the City again proposing that we make the historic Market Square in to some type of plaza. The reason I wanted to make the point about loss of retail downtown in the first few paragraphs was to emphasis that the City Market area is the last bastion of retail left downtown. The City Market area currently has enough remaining charm to continue to attract people who do not work downtown at night and on the weekends.
I have looked at many historic pictures of Market Square and I have never seen a plaza. In every historic picture I have seen the square is completely packed with cars, trucks, vendors, farmers and the public. The same space was chopped up in the 1970’s and that City “improvement” had such a bad economic effect on the Market area that the City wisely spent millions in the 1980’s to at open up the Square again.
What problem are we trying to solve with turning the Square into a plaza? Please do not answer we are building the plaza for safety to separate vendors, cars, trucks, farmers and pedestrians. There is no such problem. In fact, I would argue that historic conflict between all of those elements is in part what gives the Market Area its charm and excitement. The Market Square is one of the oldest continuous operating market areas in the Country. Is it going to go the way of the historic fire station?
Has everyone already forgotten that just a few short years ago this same Market Square was picked as one of the 25 best public spaces in America. If outsiders already think we have one of the 25 best public spaces in America what problem are we fixing by removing the cars and renovating of the Square into a plaza? The Squares gritty, disorganized nature is what makes it unique and exciting public space.
No one knows the impact of removing the cars and building a plaza on the Market area will be. Whatever unexplained problem is trying to be solved is not worth the risk.