Renovations continue on the former William Byrd High School that will turn the historic site into 85 market-rate upscale apartments. With most of the units framed up, the work now is focusing on installation of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems.
Dave McCormack, president of Waukeshaw Development that has undertaken the $12 million William Byrd project, recently spoke to the Vinton Host Lions Club to update them on the progress.
He told members that the Town of Vinton originally contacted him and asked him to take on the project because of what he has accomplished preserving historic sites in other localities from Petersburg to Bedford to Lynchburg to North Carolina. This is his fifth school project.
McCormack described the 100,000-square-foot property as one of the “white elephant buildings” which often stymie smaller municipalities and frequently end up being bulldozed as the result— unless a creative solution is offered. That is what his company has done.
Given the choice of “fix it up” or demolish, Roanoke County and Vinton have accepted his offer to renovate— creating a financial solution beneficial to all involved.
Properties such as this frequently have high assessed values– in the case of William Byrd, $2.2 million– but due to massive liabilities often have a negative worth in actuality.
Over the years, Waukeshaw has taken on over $100 million worth of “adaptive re-use” projects. McCormack says they most likely would not have been completed without the incentive of historic tax credits, such as the ones received for the William Byrd apartments (not yet officially named). This project received both state and federal historic tax credits, in essence making the venture possible and palatable for both developer and municipality. It was placed on both the Virginia Landmarks Registry and the National Register of Historic Places.
Most developers of similar properties do not take them on with plans to sell the redeveloped property quickly, and maybe not ever. In fact, McCormack said he has only sold one building of the many he has completed.
Financing is a huge factor in projects such as this. After all his time in the business, McCormack has built such a good reputation that lenders have come to believe in him and to back him financially.
McCormack plans to be a long-term owner of the Vinton property. He is interested in high-quality management for the property and high-quality tenants as residents. Vetting for management is now under way. Leasing will begin in late summer. They are shooting for a mid-September completion date.
As compared to many such white elephants which often have brownfields issues, the former WBHS was not really in bad shape, McCormack shared. There was asbestos to remove, but overall it’s a solid structure.
McCormack says that developers take high risks on such projects not knowing completely what they might uncover once renovations begin, figuring out all the unknowns— like “peeling the skin off an onion.”
McCormack told the Lions that it took two years to get to the construction phase at the former WBHS, because the process of dealing with a historic building is “incredibly complex. Site, architectural, and mechanical plans must be developed, reviewed, and approved; financing obtained including approval of the tax credits (which can be rejected outright) and incentives from the localities involved; and expensive credit and legal closings must take place. He says that he often feels he is more in the tax and legal business than in the construction business.
Often projects such as renovating the former William Byrd “seem crazy,” but they work because “people love where they come from.” He describes experiencing the rebirth of beloved properties as “the best part of my job.”
As for the specifics of the William Byrd apartment project, between the main building and the annex, 85 apartments, mostly one-bedroom, along with about 15 two-bedroom units (several in the annex), are planned all told.
McCormack says the design of the building is more conducive to singles, couples without children, empty-nesters and retirees than families with children.
Historic features being maintained include the auditorium, the chalkboards, some industrial lighting, porcelain, “miles of rose marble,” locker room benches, and stripes on the gym floor.
All buildings must be ADA compliant, but that doesn’t mean an elevator is required and this property won’t have one, with units on grade in both the annex and main building.
Parking is not anticipated to be an issue with plans to expand the upper lot and with overflow parking in the lot below.
McCormack views the renovations at William Byrd and the already completed Roland E. Cook Lofts by Old School Partners to be “catalytic projects” which lead to other investments in the area. He says that the Town of Vinton is “ahead of the game.”
He encouraged the Lions club members to advocate for continuation of historic tax credits on both the state and federal levels–“this is not the time to be ending them.” The credits should not be viewed as giveaways, but as “incentives for saving small town America.” The William Byrd tax credits are grandfathered in.
The William Byrd building was constructed in 1930 and was used as an educational and vocational training facility until 2010. The building stood vacant and served as a storage building for surplus school equipment for several years until the property was acquired by Waukeshaw.
The Roanoke County Board of Supervisors conveyed the property to Waukeshaw Development Inc. in May 2017 through an agreement that also involved cooperation from the Roanoke County Economic Development Authority. The board acquired the property through a conveyance from the Roanoke County School Board in August 2013.
The Roanoke County agreement with Waukeshaw allowed for the sale of the property for $10 and an economic development grant in an amount equal to 10 years of new local tax revenue to be reimbursed to Waukeshaw— not exceeding $1 million over 10 years. The Town of Vinton also provided a financial incentive capped at $30,000 over 10 years.