Monday, February 2, 2009

So What's Up With Hannah Court?

Will Hannah Court become a park or will it be just another industrial zone?^

(UPDATED Feb. 4) The City of Roanoke purchased a small piece of land called Hannah Court a while back with the stated intent of turning this former 67-mobile home park on a bend in the Roanoke River into a park as part of the Roanoke Valley Greenway system. The city used $1.8 million in federal money to make the buy.

There seems to be some dispute about whether this will happen. Planning Commission member Richard Rife says it will, but Jim Crawford, who lives next door to the site believes the city has other plans that would lead to commercial and industrial development there.

Novozymes Biologicals, as part of an agreement with the courts over its violation of the Clean Water Act, has agreed to pump $250,000 into creation of the park. Novozymes' head man here, Ted Melnyk, has been a significant backer of the greenway.

Crawford says that under proposed zoning, the park would become a light industrial district (L-1) and an Urban Flex District, which is "intended to promote high intensity, mixed use development that is economically viable, pedestrian oriented, attractive and harmonious and contributing to the placemaking character of the city," which is about as ambiguous as an explanation can be.

Richard, however, insists that "the Proposed Land Use Map shows the former trailer court property as 'Recreation & Open Space' zoning. This is in keeping with the Comprehensive Plan's goal of minimizing development in the flood plain." He says the flex district is "geared toward encouraging small arts & crafts businesses such as furniture makers, jewelry makers, construction tradesmen, etc. [It would be functional in] reviving the area down Cleveland Ave. by building businesses that can spin off the salvage operation." That would be Black Dog Salvage.

Jim Crawford, who is on the Roanoke Valley Preservation Foundation Board (as am I) lives in the Mountain View section bordering the now vacated park and has done some marvelous preservation work at his old home. The park is being cleared as we speak. Jim did not burst any arteries when he spoke, but I saw some veins swell alarmingly. As is so often the case with neighbors bumping up against sections where the city has expressed an interest, Jim was feeling like somebody lied to him and others in the area.

City planner Chris Chittum says, "The zoning proposal is still very much that: a proposal and nothing has been set in stone." He adds, "If you are familiar with the way this department conducts business, you will know that we actively encourage input by people who are impacted by changes and, more often than not, will make adjustments in response."

Frankly, my puzzlement has not to do so much with the possibility of lying from government officials--these people are as honest as any of the rest of us--but, if Jim is right, just exactly why they figure this piece of land should be used for commercial development, sitting, as it does on the banks of a river that floods several times in any given year and floods badly every few years.

My guess is that there are very, very few people in the planning department--or in the decision-making process of city government--who were here in 1985 when all hell broke loose with that damn river. It destroyed everything in its path, killed several people and scared the devil out of the rest of us.

Hannah Court is across the river from the west end of Wasena Park at the small dam. It is heavily in the flood zone and the feds put up the $1.8 million to get people who lived there out of harm's way. It is not an area that is logically fit for development. The Army Corps of Engineers, in fact, has just finished doing a lot of work in this area trying to reduce the effects of flooding as part of a $64.3 million project.

Hannah Court is a perfect area for extension of the city's greenway. As a trailer park, it was an eyesore (except, I suppose, to those who lived there) and a danger to those who called it home. With all evidence of the park gone, Hannah Court is a rolling meadow below Memorial Ave. and beside the Memorial Ave. Bridge, an elegant Depression-era construction. The greenway is to run northwest away from the park on that side of the river, accessible via a small bridge that, I understand, would not be built under the new plan. The concrete dam crossing the river is scheduled for demolition, according to a construction foreman. There was some concern that it would remain and that the pedestrian footbridge that is part of the park plan would not be built. The foreman says the demolition of the dam would enable a small perch to spawn and the state's wildlife department approves of that.

Jim says, the parks department people didn't know about the new plan for the court until he told them and even Liz Belcher, the head of the greenway program, was in the dark. My guess is that Liz and the parks people are not happy about the development. He also insists that he has been assured Hannah Court will be a park "for now." He's worried about the future of the land.

Any zoning for Hanna Court other than as a park does not deserve serious consideration and if Richard is right, nothing else is being talked about. We'll see.

Chris Chittum with the city's planning department says there is a meeting Friday at noon at the city offices.

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