VINTON–Roland E. Cook Elementary School in Vinton was built in 1915. It served the town as a high school until 1933, an elementary school until 1999, and an alternative school until 2009. The building initially owned by Roanoke County Schools was returned to county ownership in 2013. The county has been seeking a developer since then.
Community meetings were held in November 2013 to determine what the public would like to see happen to the building, which is still solid and attractive within, with gleaming hardwood and terrazzo-type floors, marble, and slate.
Mike Altizer was Vinton’s representative to the Board of Supervisors at the time and described the building as “a grand old lady, a historic landmark which needs renovations.”
The first floor has standard classrooms, the library, and the principal’s office. There are more classrooms upstairs and the gymnasium. Town Manager Chris Lawrence described the basement of the building as very “utilitarian,” with a commercial kitchen and cafeteria, heated by radiators on the ceiling. The building has gas heat and central air conditioning and occupies about 17, 642 square feet.
Lawrence envisioned Roland E. Cook at that time as “another potential partnership between Roanoke County who owns the building and the Town of Vinton who control the zoning.”
“Our goal is to redevelop the property, not to tear it down,” said Lawrence. “We want to develop it into something remarkable.” He also mentioned the quality construction of the building.
“We want to find the right developer with the right idea and go from there,” said Altizer. “We all want the building to stay there as the best end result.”
The conclusion reached during that process was that it would take a public/private partnership and a non-traditional developer committed to the locality and to historic preservation to renovate the site.
Well, the right non-traditional developer has stepped forward—Old School Partners, LLC. The four-member Limited Liability Company was formed for this specific project by David Hill of Hill Studios, developer Dale Wilkinson, builder Greg Rhodes, and attorney David Spigle. In May 2014 the county began accepting proposals for the purchase and development of the property and theirs was accepted.
The proposal advanced by Old School Partners is to transform each of the 21 classrooms in the building into upscale apartments, 15 one-bedroom and six studio. They aim “to leave the schoolhouse character intact,” with some chalkboards, some arches, and other schoolhouse features remaining. There is a large multi-purpose room on the second floor that they hope to use as some type of community space rather than divide it into apartments. Commercial components will be determined during the rezoning process.
According to the agreement approved, “the project will maintain the historic character of the building, but incorporate modern conveniences.”
The school is located on about an acre of land at 412 Poplar Street near downtown Vinton, just blocks from the new library. The county considers it to be historically significant.
The Powerpoint presentation delivered to the Board of Supervisors this week by Director of Economic Development Jill Loope states that Roland E. Cook is “perhaps the best surviving example of a two-story consolidated school of four or more rooms built before 1920 in Roanoke County.” The county replaced one-room schools in the more rural areas with consolidated schools to improve the quality of education.
Roanoke County submitted an application to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources in January of 2015 to determine the facility’s eligibility for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Registry. They received notification in March that the property was approved at the Preliminary Information Level and is eligible for the nomination, which could lead to historic tax credits.
The estimated cost of the project is $3.2 million with an expected $950,000 coming from historic tax credits, $150,000 from Roanoke County incentives, and $2.1 million financed by the developers.
Old School Partners will buy the property for ten dollars. According to the agreement, if historic preservation certificates are not received and construction doesn’t begin within a year, the county may buy the property back for $10 including any improvements which have been made. Once the historic preservation certificates are received, Old School Partners will provide the county with a letter of credit as an Additional Performance Security in the amount of $250,000.
The agreement provides for reimbursement to the developer of building permit fees associated with the property, water and sewer connection fees from the Town of Vinton, and stormwater fees imposed by Roanoke County, along with the return of real estate revenues generated from the redevelopment project for the first ten years of the project at an amount not to exceed $150,000 in total, beginning in January 2017.
If everything falls into place, renovations are expected to be complete by June 30, 2017.
At the initial 2013 public meeting, concerns were expressed that the longer the building sat vacant, the more it would devalue, and that rezoning regulations would deter potential investors.
Roland E. Cook is currently zoned R-2 (Residential District) intended for single-family, detached housing, but also allows for two-family dwellings, churches, public and private schools, parks, playgrounds, government buildings, community centers, adult care homes, and group homes.
The building is situated at the edge of both residential and commercial zones.
Councilman (now Vice Mayor) Matt Hare assured those present at the 2013 meeting that the Town controls the zoning and would be able to move quickly once a developer was found—which they did.
Public hearings on the town’s zoning ordinances were held in March 2015.
David Jones, Chairman of the Vinton Planning Commission, urged the town to adopt mixed-use zoning which accommodates a combination of residential and commercial spaces within the same property, with the future development of Roland E. Cook and the former William Byrd High School specifically in mind.
“These two properties are hard to sell,” said Jones. “We need to do everything we can. Roanoke County has an expectation for us to take actions to help them. This is a real opportunity.”
Mayor Brad Grose also spoke in March in favor of amending the zoning ordinance as “an indication of a progressive community which says to a developer that we are a community willing to be flexible.”
Vinton Town Council took action to amend its zoning policy allowing mixed use zoning soon afterward.
The public continues to demonstrate interest in and excitement about the future of the site. The “Former Roland E. Cook Elementary School” Facebook page set up by the Town of Vinton and Roanoke County is encouraging citizens to discuss the future of the property.
A public hearing on proposed zoning changes to accommodate the redevelopment proposal will be scheduled by the Town of Vinton for September.
Jason Peters, who now represents Vinton on the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors and serves as Chairman, said that he is excited about the plans for the redevelopment of Roland E. Cook, especially in light of all the other significant changes to Vinton with the new library set to open in the fall and the completion of projects funded by the $700,000 Community Development Block Grant scheduled for early 2015. An announcement is forthcoming on plans for the old William Byrd High School as well.