‘Fireworks’ missing as council approves West Salem Body Shop development

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Photo by Meg Hibbert Salem School Board Chairman David Preston and Councilmember Jane Johnson talk for a moment at the packed April 24 Salem City Council meeting when Council approved sale of West Salem Body Shop property to developers for apartments and possibly a restaurant. Other members of the school board are seated behind Preston.

More than 50 nearby neighborhood residents turned out Monday night when Salem City Council approved a land sale that would provide development for 10 or more upper floor apartments in the old West Salem Body Shop building in downtown Salem.

Many of the residents wanted to know what city officials are planning for airspace above the Salem Farmers Market area and for the block of West Main Street, South Broad, Clay and Burwell streets.

But what Council approved was limited to the vacant West Salem Body Shop building at 8 West Main Street, which is being purchased for $160,000 by Salem Body Shop LLC, previously referred to as Live Oak Partners LLC. The vacant brick building which sports a 1928 sign was acquired by the city in a property swap last year.

The purchasing entity is made up of downtown Roanoke developers Ed Walker and partners including Brent Cochran who addressed Council Monday night. Cochran said they intend to invest about $1.7 million to make 10 or more apartments on the upper floors of West Salem Body Shop and use the ground floor for a restaurant, if they can attract one, or other commercial ventures.

In the request for proposal, Council required apartments on upper floors and expressed a desire for a restaurant on the ground floor, since meals taxes go to help pay for school debts, Salem City Manager Kevin Boggess pointed out at the meeting.

Cochran estimated conversion of the building could be completed by 2018, with 500-square-foot apartments renting for about $400-500 per month.

Any possible future development of airspace above the Salem Farmers Market is “so far down the path…we’re open to all ideas,” Cochran reassured local citizens during the Council meeting. “We would need to do a study to see if a hotel would be financially viable in Salem,” he said.

“I’m glad all these people are here,” Cochran added. “That’s good because it means you have an engaged citizenry.” Cochran added that he and his partners “are definitely going to engage the citizens” in future ideas.

A hotel that might be built above the open-air Salem Farmers Market was only one potential use mentioned in the city’s Downtown Revitalization Plan for which planners have been gathering ideas over the past year.

“The last thing I want to do is ruin a farmers market,” added Cochran, who is founder and president of LEAP (Local Environmental Agriculture Project) that runs a market in the parking lot of the Co-Op in Grandin, one in West End and a mobile market that serves low-income neighborhoods in Roanoke City.

Any new construction in the farmers market area would need to be second-floor with open area underneath, Boggess pointed out during the meeting, because the market is in a floodplain. A creek runs behind nearby Salem City Hall and underneath the market and underground adjacent to Brooks-Byrd Pharmacy across Main Street.

The actual unanimous vote by Salem Councilmembers Bill Jones, Jane Johnson, Jim Chisom and James Martin with Mayor Randy Foley absent was to authorize the city manager to execute the contract for the sale of West Salem Body Shop. A public hearing was held on Jan. 9, with request for proposals to receive bids later that month. Cochran and Walker’s group was one of three that submitted proposals, the city manager said.

The group has two years to develop the property to the city’s satisfaction, and if that deadline is not met, the city has the right to buy the property back for the original $160,000 price.

Because Monday night’s meeting was not a public hearing on the West Salem Body Shop property, citizens were not invited to speak.

After the meeting, neighborhood resident John Powell said he had attended “to see if there were any ‘fireworks,’ and there weren’t.”

Salem resident Frank Sellers said he was “delighted to hear that the only property involved was the West Salem Body Shop space.” He explained he was at the meeting to hear what was said about the farmers market.

Broad Street resident Stella Reinhard, who lives a block away from the market, had emailed letters to neighbors and community groups such as the Salem Garden Club, urging residents to turn out to show Salem City Council they were concerned about possible development threatening the market and other downtown areas.

Cynthia Munley said after the meeting the market works the way it is now, and would be completely altered with a high-rise building. “I think the city makes a lot of decisions because they own the property,” Munley added.

Jim and Loraine Myer were at the meeting to see plans for East Main Street Urban Development Area and amendments to the city’s Comprehensive Plan for that area because they live in the neighborhood near the former Dominion Dodge.

After looking at plans with Salem City Planner Ben Tripp, the couple said they were pleased to see drawings that show sidewalks, two-way traffic with turning lanes and other improvements. “Whatever Salem does, what Ed Walker does, will be a good job,” Loraine Myer said. “It was encouraging to me,” added Jim Myer. “It seems that what Salem is not doing is chasing heavy industry because that is a thing of the past.”

Also at the April 24 meeting, Council accepted the 2017-18 Salem City Schools $44.9 million budget, which includes a 2 percent raise for teachers and other personnel, effective February 2018.

Salem School Board Chairman David Preston thanked Council for a $325,000 increase in local funding, “to close the funding gap for school employees.”

He said that although the “Great Recession presented formidable challenges, the School Board and its employees have persisted in its continuous improvement efforts,” getting more than $2.2 million in competitive grants since 2013 that helped provide “additional income for teachers, improve safety and security and improve teaching and learning for the children and families we serve.”

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