Opponents of new Roanoke bus station claim federal protections, city continues forward

Opponents form new business association to fight the chosen location

ROANOKE, Va. – A group of downtown Roanoke business owners formally united against the proposed location of the new Valley Metro bus station and added a new reason to their list of why it's the wrong spot for a transit facility, but city leaders were unfazed and moved forward with the plan.

The issue began in January when the city announced its plans to participate in a land swap that would move the bus station from Campbell Court to a parking lot across from the Virginia Museum of Transportation, give the current bus station location to a developer for a mixed-use development, and have the city take over land near the Amtrak platform to create a passenger station.

The location of the new bus station is the controversial part of the plan. Those opposed to it got a chance to air their grievances again at a public hearing Monday night, a formality, as the city needed to amend the dates on its original contracts.

Bill Chapman is one of the handful of developers responsible for how parts of downtown Roanoke look today. He is the leader of the new Salem Avenue Neighborhood Business Association, comprised of property owners, business owners and homeowners associations along the Salem Avenue corridor. The group formed specifically to fight the new bus station's proposed location.

Chapman argued before the council Monday night federal protections would not allow the city to put the bus station in the land across from the museum, but others felt that argument was a reach. The council voted unanimously to approve the contract revisions and did not respond to Chapman's concerns.

The developer said he's put $40 million into Roanoke through his work. One of his most recent projects, what's known as West Station, is made up of apartments, Beamer's 25, and Big Lick Brewing. Across the street from that is Tuco's Taqueria and smaller residential buildings. The area is now a popular place for people to live and hang out. His work on the western fringe of the central business district was celebrated by city leaders and the proposed land for the new bus station is right next door.

Chapman told 10 News in January he was blindsided by the city's announcement to move the bus station right next to his West Station development, saying he only learned of it through media reports. His residents and supporters were out in full force at a January council meeting, hoisting signs in the air against the project. Chapman called the current bus station "the epicenter of crime in Roanoke."

Monday night he added a new layer to the argument, claiming the concerns of crime will also concern historical regulators because the project will likely be partly funded with federal dollars, in possible violation of restrictions that go along with that money.

"Before the FTA (Federal Transit Administration) undertakes a project or a program, it requires a review to make sure its dollars won't negatively impact a federally protected structure or neighborhood," Chapman said.

Roanoke City Council did not directly respond to Chapman's comments and have said in the past that the crime rate was mischaracterized by opponents.  The new bus station would be adjacent to three places on the federal historic register; the Virginia Museum of Transportation, the Downtown Roanoke Historic District, and the Salem Avenue-Roanoke Automotive Commercial Historic District.

Chapman said the Federal Transit Administration will let the state Department of Historic Resources guide it on whether the project would negatively impact protected areas. He added he spoke with a top official in the state office who was unaware of the city's plan, and he was told the city has not spoken with the DHR about it.

"Ignorance is bliss. (The city) has gone eight months without going down there. I think they have no idea," Chapman said. "According to one person I spoke with, the words were, '(The city) has no idea of the buzz saw they're about it run into.'"

City Manager Bob Cowell declined to discuss the matter in an interview, saying only that it's too early to think about that issue. The council remains set on the plan and Mayor Sherman Lea said the deal is all but done.

"I've got assurances of things that the developers have done, we're committed to this and I think it's going to be another shot in the arm for Roanoke," Lea said.

Lucas Thornton is also one of the original developers of how Roanoke looks in the 21st Century and his company Hist:Re Partners would get to develop the land vacated by the old bus station. The announcement of the proposed mixed-use development there was celebrated by city leaders as well as business in the area who complained of the bus station being a nuisance in the area because of crime, loitering and other issues. But that can only happen if the bus station relocates somewhere else.

In 2017 when ideas were still being developed, one proposal was for the bus station to be next to the Amtrak Platform, a few blocks away from the current proposed location. At that time, Thornton told the Roanoke Times that plan was bad, “calling it an 'unwelcoming' use of land smack in front of people arriving on Amtrak.” But Thornton is supportive of the current proposed location in front of the museum and adjacent to Chapman's developments, expressing frustrations about Chapman's claims of possible federal holdups and saying Chapman's claims of a possible federal issue are overstated.

"I thought it was slightly disingenuous that we focus on the historic district when the parcel in question is a parking lot," Thornton said. "To take a parking lot and create an interesting development around transportation makes a ton of sense."

When opposition initially cropped up to the plan, Thornton had no comment to 10 News about those concerns, stating his company was not involved in the relocation or future bus station, just the development on what was left behind. But on Monday night he wanted to comment on the plan's newest criticism because he said he is a citizen of Roanoke and is deeply interested at the new transportation facility.

Since the beginning, Thornton has said he could not think of a better place for a well-designed transportation facility than in front of the Virginia Museum of Transportation. The Virginia Museum of Transportation has rebuked Thornton's idea, saying the proposal to put the bus station in what is essentially the museum's front yard has a "significant opportunity to diminish the museum tremendously."