Developers unveil Roland E. Cook plans

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VINTON–While the new Vinton Library is scheduled to be completed by mid-November, that will not mark the end of construction in downtown Vinton. Another major project will be getting underway soon after—the re-development of the Roland E. Cook Elementary School property at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Poplar Street.

This conceptual design drawing represents the proposed plan for the Roland E. Cook Elementary School property near downtown Vinton.
This conceptual design drawing represents the proposed plan for the Roland E. Cook Elementary School property near downtown Vinton.

The cornerstone indicates the building is 100 years old, built in 1915. It served the town as a high school until 1933 and then as an elementary school until 1999. The building, originally owned by Roanoke County Schools, was returned to county ownership in 2013.

The structure has three levels. Currently the middle floor at ground level has standard classrooms, the library, and the principal’s office. There are more classrooms upstairs and a gymnasium. The lower floor of the building is very utilitarian, with a commercial kitchen and cafeteria. The building occupies around 17, 642 square feet and sits on about an acre of land.

This drawing represents the view of the renovated Roland E. Cook from the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Poplar Street.
This drawing represents the view of the renovated Roland E. Cook from the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Poplar Street.

Roanoke County submitted an application to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR) 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 for the developers.

On August 11, the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors voted to authorize a performance agreement between the county, the Roanoke County Development Authority, and Old School Partners, LLC.

Old School Partners is a local team which formed just for this project and includes architect David Hill of Hill Studio, developer Dale Wilkinson, builder Greg Rhodes, and attorney David Spigle.

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. They plan to use the gymnasium as some type of community space rather than divide it into apartments. They are hoping for a mixed demographic of occupants.

Several apartments will be loft apartments with spiral staircases.
Several apartments will be loft apartments with spiral staircases.

On October 8 the developers held a work session with the Vinton Planning Commission to unveil more detailed plans for the renovations and to discuss rezoning. The property is now zoned residential (R-2) and must be rezoned to Mixed Use Development (MUD) for the project to proceed.

Hill presented the plans for the “Roland Cook Lofts” to the commission. Their first suggestion for modifications came with the request to change the name of the development to Roland “E.” Cook, as that is how the building is identified within the town of Vinton and by the many who attended the school.

Hill discussed the site in three separate areas—the front lawn, the building itself, and the paved playground. In order to obtain historic tax credits, certain resources must be preserved including not just the building, but also keeping the grounds “looking historic” with the trees and walls present on the site retained as much as possible.

The main entrance will be located on Jefferson Avenue. An elevator will be added to meet ADA requirements.

The gymnasium on the upper floor will be renovated for use as a common space, not transformed into apartments.
The gymnasium on the upper floor will be renovated for use as a common space, not transformed into apartments.

When questioned by Bill Booth from the Planning Commission, Wilkinson said that they plan to use local contractors as much as possible on the project.

Questioned as to why the entire upper floor will not be made into apartments, the team and Anita McMillan, Planning and Zoning Director, explained that leaving the gym and stage area is necessary to preserve the historic nature of the structure to satisfy DHR requirements.

Hill told the planning commission that the windows were replaced in the 1970’s with the 14 foot ceilings lowered. The plan is to replace the windows, going back to the old window look and raising the ceilings once again.

Some design elements from the original structure will be maintained such as arches and possibly some chalkboards.
Some design elements from the original structure will be maintained such as arches and possibly some chalkboards.

The wall and trees will remain along the alley. As for parking, there will be approximately 29 spaces within the complex, with 59 spaces within 200 feet and 159 within 400 feet, including handicapped parking.

A Community Planning Open House was held at Vinton Wesleyan Church across from the school on October 12 to seek public input on the proposal. Participants ranged in age from young couples to seniors. The plans generated a great deal of excitement and optimism about the proposed project and eager anticipation for its completion.

One suggestion was the addition of a roof garden since there is access to roof where there are some spectacular views of Mill Mountain, downtown Roanoke, Parkway Wesleyan Church on the hill, and the new library. Stories were shared of time capsules buried outside by fifth grade classes each year.

The community was invited to an Open House at Vinton Wesleyan Church, located across the street from the school on Oct. 12 to view the proposed plans, hosted by Old School Partners and the Town of Vinton.
The community was invited to an Open House at Vinton Wesleyan Church, located across the street from the school on Oct. 12 to view the proposed plans, hosted by Old School Partners, LLC and the Town of Vinton.

On the Old School Partners’ detailed calendar, schematic designs and Part II of the Historic Preservation Certification Applications (HPCA) will be submitted to the Department of Historic Resources (DHR) on November 1 with a decision expected back from DHR on December 1.

Public hearings on rezoning will be held by the Planning Commission on Nov. 5 and by Town Council on Nov. 17. If things move along as scheduled, the construction drawings will be 100 percent complete by March 1, 2016, and the project released for bids. Construction will begin around April 15 and completed in March 2017.