Danville’s Revival: Historic Architecture + Walkable Urbanism

The new Danville — more of this….

In Part II of his extended essay on the revitalization of downtown Danville, Va., The Atlantic magazine writer James Fallows dates the beginning of the city’s revival to the decision to demolish The Downtowner, a classic example of atrocious 60s-era architecture. In retrospect, it now obvious that the “modernist” architecture of the 50s and 6os was so hideous that it is not only not worth preserving, it is a blight. Or, as Fallows put it: “Most people believed that the old buildings had timeless-classic potential, and the Downtowner did not.”

… and less of this.

When the city took the wrecking ball to the Downtowner in 2012, only 400 or so people worked or lived in the downtown tobacco warehouse district now known as the River District. After several years the renovation and retrofit of old industrial buildings, the number now stands at 6,000.

Classic architecture (even if it is industrial architecture) + a traditional downtown street grid + views of the Dan River have proved to be a winning combination. Who ever would have thought that Danville would reinvent itself as a center of walkable urbanism? But it has, and therein lies its hope for sustainable economic growth.

Danville has long epitomized Virginia’s “rust belt” economy, built on tobacco, textiles and furniture and devastated by globalism and factory automation. Efforts to stimulate a turnaround seemed dim given the city’s acute disadvantage in the competition for knowledge workers and the employers that covet them. America’s small metros (including Danville’s) can’t begin to match the depth and scope of skilled/educated workers found in large metros, much less the kind of economic synergies associated with industry clusters and innovation ecosystems.

But it turns out that Danville does have something the world wants: walkable urbanism. While Danville cannot compete on the size and quality of its labor force, it can offer walkable urbanism at lower prices and in a far less congested setting than found in large metros. Danville won’t appeal to most high-tech employers, not by a long shot. But in a low-unemployment economy in which corporations are desperate for employees, the city now has something to offer that other small cities do not.

Fallows attributes much of Danville’s revival to Virginia’s tax breaks for the renovation of historical structures.

In Danville, the tax policies that matter have been from two states, and the federal government. The states are Virginia, which offers builders a 25% tax credit for construction cost on historic-preservation projects like those in Danville — and neighboring North Carolina, which also had such a program but cut it back substantially five years ago. Both state credits come on top of a 20% federal tax credit for preservation projects, and in effect they dramatically reduced the capital costs for developers interested in restoring warehouses, abandoned factories, old shops, etc. (Do such tax preferences amount to “picking winners”? Sure. But in a tax regime that includes provisions like the carried-interest deduction for hedge-fund managers, I’ll defend the public benefits of this preference any time.)

The Virginia program fostered renewal efforts like those in Danville (and Roanoke and Lynchburg and Charlottesville and elsewhere). The cuts in the North Carolina program (though later partially reversed) enticed developers like those who had transformed tobacco and textile works in Durham and Winston-Salem to look out of state. Virginia was right next door.

Hopefully, the Virginia Tobacco Revitalization Commission, which still has millions of dollars of funds to grant, will learn something from Danville’s experience. Subsidizing investment by transient corporations who have no long-term commitment to the region is not a sustainable economic development strategy. Ten or 15 years later and, poof, many of these manufacturers and call centers will be gone. Rather, the commission should focus on building communities with sufficient size and wealth of assets that they can compete in the Knowledge Economy. Centers of walkable urbanism like Danville and Abingdon can become local magnets for growth, capturing skilled/educated workers and corporate investment that the region might otherwise lose to larger metros. The key is creating places where knowledge workers can envision living, working and building businesses over the long haul.

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11 responses to “Danville’s Revival: Historic Architecture + Walkable Urbanism

  1. Thanks for these two posts and the link to the Atlantic article. (Fallows is a great writer.) I grew up 30 miles from Danville and often went there in those days. It has been a long time since I was last there, however, and I had no idea it had evolved in this manner. I will check it out sometime when I am down that way.

  2. We go around Danville several times a year – detoured once and was not impressed… lots of vacant building and closed industrial – perhaps he’s focusing on the inner core area but on the outer fringes, it’s looks like it’s lost a lot of economic muscle.

    I’m still a skeptic about “walkable urban” attracting employers if the workforce itself is not there. One could argue chicken-egg but there are so many other things NOT in Danville that ARE in places like NoVa that attract BOTH workforce and employers.

    Perhaps there is some magic formula and we’re seeing it play out but
    Danville looks like a town of 40+ thousand with the average income of a Danville resident is $20,569 a year and the Median household income of a Danville resident is $32,173 a year.

    Here’s the top employers:

    Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, 2000 employees, tire manufacturer

    Danville Regional Medical Center/Stratford Health Center, 1,339, healthcare services

    Danville Public Schools, 1,289, public education

    City of Danville, 1,252, local government

    Telvista, 780, service, inbound technical support

    Nestle, 575, pasta, sauce, cookie dough manufacturer

    Wal-Mart, 474, retail

    Averett University, 400, collegiate studies

    Food Lion, 376, grocery

  3. The key paragraph in James Fallow’s fine Atlantic article is:

    “If you were here ten years ago, it would have been obvious that we were a mill town without a mill,” Rick Barker, a Danville native and entrepreneur who is now a downtown developer of historic properties, told me this month. “Now we’re becoming something else.”

    What is that something? The purpose of this dispatch is to give a few illustrations of a city in the middle of becoming, and some brief background on work that’s been done and work that remains.”

    This statement holds true for every community everywhere in America, and has since its founding. The irony is that historic preservation always has been a key element for that engine of positive change. This irony has become especially true since the passage of the Federal tax credit act of 1976. For example, one old abandoned and derelict building just off Pennsylvania Avenue, in Washington DC, otherwise slated for demolition, was restored and placed on the National Register instead, likely it was the first to have been so designated. Leased on completion, it got the highest office rents then obtained in the history of Washington DC. Soon thereafter, rents exploded all over DC, particularly in newly restored historic building that otherwise would likely have been destroyed. Historic preservation in Virginia towns, like always, is a key to their future renaissance. As is happening now yet again in Danville, Virginia.

    • “In Part II of his extended essay on the revitalization of downtown Danville, Va., The Atlantic magazine writer James Fallows dates the beginning of the city’s revival to the decision to demolish The Downtowner, a classic example of atrocious 60s-era architecture. In retrospect, it now obvious that the “modernist” architecture of the 50s and 6os was so hideous that it is not only not worth preserving, it is a blight.”

      The “Downtowner affect, the plague of atrocious 60s-era architecture” – this too is a ubiquitous problem for all ages that often only historic preservation can effectively dilute and sometimes cure.

      So, for example, post WW11 culture and government spent much of its first three decades destroying the historic fabric of Washington DC, replacing it with atrocious architecture, often in the name of ill conceived, government sponsored, urban renewal. Whole sections of historic southeast DC were torn down, replaced by urban wastelands of no where places.

      This orgy of distruction, much of it government induced, reached its climax with the atrociously ugly FBI Building completed in 1974 on Pennsylvania Avenue, the nation’s main Street, between Capital Building and White House. Then Sam Huston’s DC home and 1st State Department building was demolished at midnight on M street a few blocks west of the White House. The Red Lion Row across M street was similarly threatened, all this during the wind down debacle of Viet Nam War & Richard Nixon’s White House.

      Simply put, the Federal Historic Preservation tax credit act of 1976, and all the massive Washington DC historic preservation that followed in its train, did much to save Washington DC, its history, its living past, its spirit, and its future.

      This miracle of historic preservation spread out across America far and wide. It saved downtown Fredericksburg, Va, from the onslaught of Downtowners. Most all the actual building under this government program was done by private entrepreneurs that brought great, irreplaceable, and long lasting benefit to the entire community, not only saving monuments to the past communities but bringing those communities back to life again for the generations that followed and will follow in their wake.

  4. What’s so wrong with the Downtowner hotel or the FBI building.? They bring back fond memories of Cold War Moscow. They are nothing but obvious examples of brutalist architecture (such as the the old Washington Post building).. It kind of grows on you.

    • You wonder What in the World was in Peoples’ Heads back then when they built such monstrosities like the FBI building on Pennsylvania Avenue of all places and in so many other locales in the Nation’s Capital and then in the 1960s out into suburbs in such prime and visually prominent locations like Rossyln, Va.

  5. The peak population in Danville was recorded in the 1990 census at 53,056. The 2000 census showed an 8.8% population decline. The 2010 census showed an 11.1% population decline from 2000. The years 2011 through 2017 are estimated at another 4.5% population decline. The estimated population of Danville in 2017 was 41,130 – down 11,926 residents since 1990 – a loss of 22.5% of the population. Virginia had a population of 6,187,358 in 1990. It has a 2018 estimated population of 8,517,685 … a gain of 2,330,000 or 37.7%.

    If Danville had merely kept up with Virginia’s population growth from 1990 it would have 73,035 residents. Instead, it is 31,906 people short.

    If walkable urbanism is the alchemy of growth – where are the people?

    • Don, c’mon, you can do better than this. Sure, Danville’s population has declined since 1990. But the revitalization of downtown has occurred only in the past five years or so! Perhaps you should ask how much the city’s population would have declined were it not for the development of walkable urbanism downtown.

      What’s your solution for Danville? Curl up in a foetal position and wait to die?

      • Walkable urbanism is of no use unless there are jobs. A “build it and they will come” approach never works. Ask the residents of Brasilia. I hate to tell you but the least walkable places in Virginia are growing the fastest (ex: Loudoun County). Walkability makes a place a better place but it doesn’t solve economic stagnation.

        What is my solution for Danville? Either find an industry where you can build a cluster of companies or get used to the centuries old, world wide trend of urbanization.

        Communities change. As I understand it Danville was built on tobacco back in the day. That’s over.

        Have you ever been to Matildaville, Va? Maybe you know it as South Lowell. No? It was build to be the staging and headquarters area for the construction of the Patowmack Canal. It was on the Potomac and became a popular destination for sport fishermen, tourists and those who wanted to frequent its many taverns. Then the Patowmack Canal closed in 1828. The town tried to reinvent itself as a textile manufacturing center (sound familiar)? Currently all that remains of the town are a series of ruins on the grounds of Great Falls Park.

        Find an economic base or curl up in a fetal position and wait to die.

        You believe in Schumpeterian economics for companies. Why not for cities and town too?

        • We don’t disagree all that much. Walkable Urbanism by itself will not save Danville. The city still needs to find its economic base. But having an attractive area to live and work will make it easier to find that economic base than a dead downtown and rural sprawl.

          Averett University, a private higher-ed institution, has been a major growth industry. Maybe Danville will find others.

        • “Have you ever been to Matildaville, Va? Maybe you know it as South Lowell. No? It was build to be the staging and headquarters area for the construction of the Patowmack Canal. It was on the Potomac and became a popular destination for sport fishermen, tourists and those who wanted to frequent its many taverns. Then the Patowmack Canal closed in 1828. The town tried to reinvent itself as a textile manufacturing center (sound familiar)? Currently all that remains of the town are a series of ruins on the grounds of Great Falls Park.”

          Matildaville would be booming today but for a political decision.

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