On a 3-acre plot of northwest Roanoke once choked with trash and weeds, Rick Williams envisions an urban farm and new “energy for a village center.”
Sunday, February 19, 2012
For most of her 60 years in the little house on Alview Avenue, Thelma Taliaferro could look out the back windows and see shipshape greenhouses filled with flowers, shrubs and saplings.But Crowell Nursery closed in 2000, and the land changed hands in 2004. With nobody looking after it, it didn’t take long for the property fronting 10th Street in northwest Roanoke to deteriorate into a tangled mass of weeds and brambles, dilapidated buildings and mountains of trash.
“You couldn’t even see or walk through it,” Taliaferro said.
When Rick Williams bought the three acres in 2010, it was because he could see beyond the jungle of abandonment to the underlying earth that had once been so fertile. He imagined a beautiful vista with gardens, fruit trees and a farmers market where he could sell his produce.
“I became interested in local agriculture as a catalyst for neighborhood revitalization,” Williams said. “Maybe on-site agriculture production with a public market could create some kind of energy for a village center.”
Today, folks who drive past the land on 10th Street see a bulldozer crawling over an expanse of paprika dirt. If all goes as Williams has planned, what they’ll eventually see is an urban farm and a bustling market in a neighborhood that often feels neglected.
‘Pit bull of 10th Street’
Frederick “Rick” Williams grew up off Williamson Road and has long been an advocate for Roanoke neighborhoods, though some would say he can be as thorny as the roses Crowell Nursery used to sell.
He graduated from William Fleming High School and earned degrees in mathematics and mechanical engineering at Washington & Lee University and Virginia Tech, respectively. He is currently employed as a software engineer at TMEIC.
After living in south Roanoke for 14 years, Williams, who is in his 50s, moved back to northwest Roanoke in 1996 and soon after became a member of the Williamson Road Action Forum. Since 2002, he has been a member of the city planning commission.
Over the years, he has caused friction by passionately opposing some projects and gunning for others.
In 2000, he fought to prevent the widening of 10th Street from two lanes to three or four. In 2004, he pushed a Williamson Road neighborhood plan that threatened to stymie a Berglund Auto World expansion, and also protested a developer’s plans to temporarily use a street in the historically black Southern Hills neighborhood for construction traffic.
During discussion of the 10th Street widening project in 2000, he told a Roanoke Times reporter: “I guess my persistence has been the biggest thing I’ve brought to this issue. I simply refuse to let go. I’m the pit bull of 10th Street, I guess.”
On the planning commission, Williams also pushed for neighborhood-commercial zoning for the Crowell property, which is the bull’s-eye of the Washington Park neighborhood’s “village center.” In the city’s comprehensive plan, every neighborhood has a village center — places that can someday become community hubs such as Grandin Village or Crystal Spring.Neighborhood-commercial zoning is meant to limit business development. Williams said he wanted to prevent something like a mini-storage facility or a dollar store from being built on the old Crowell land.
“At that time, I had no idea I would ever in a million years own this property,” he said.
But after some 15 years of advocating for positive change on 10th Street, he said, it feels right.
Williams bought the property, as well as two included parcels across the street, for $60,000. Then he developed a two-part plan: remodel the 100-year-old house perched near the road and clear and prepare the land for agricultural use.
“This house was a total wreck,” Williams said. “The roof was three layers of shingles that leaked like a sieve. The windows were just crap. But inside, it is sound red oak that is just as solid as it can be.”
By December, contractors should have transformed the structure into a single-family home. The rooms added by Thomas Crowell years ago will serve as farmers market support space, where produce can be washed and packaged, equipment and food can be stored, and sales can be held on foul weather days.
Williams said he may rent out the house at first, but someday he’d like to live there.
“It is hard to farm remotely,” he said. “You are not there to watch or participate in the neighborhood.”
He is not as concerned about the Virginia Department of Transportation’s more recent plans to widen 10th Street, he said, and is willing to give up a little land so long as it will “create genuine public good” with the addition of a sidewalk, bike lane, planting strip, curb and gutter.
Clearing the land posed more challenges. The back of the property had become a sort of miniature landfill where litter bugs tossed mattresses, tires, rusty barrels and other junk.
One day, Williams came across a pocketbook with identification that led him to Thelma Taliaferro. The 86-year-old woman’s purse had been stolen from her home, but the burglar apparently took her cellphone and tossed the purse, leaving hundreds of dollars in Christmas cash behind.
When Williams returned the purse to his new neighbor, she said, “I told him, ‘You are my guardian angel’ and I just hugged him.” It wasn’t the cash she had missed, she said, but the photos of her grandson.
But that was the only item of value in two tractor-trailer loads full of trash that were hauled away. Meanwhile, trees were cleared and mulched, undergrowth ripped away and large rocks unearthed. Before winter set in, Williams plowed and planted winter rye and field peas as cover crops. He has also had the soil tested for contamination.
He left a huge Chinese elm and a massive magnolia tree untouched. From the road, the elm forms a pretty silhouette against the mountain background. The huge magnolia’s sheltering branches create a natural playhouse where children might someday explore. Two ponds are being created on the property for water catchment and ecosystem development.
Thomas Crowell’s granddaughter, Melinda Whitaker of Vinton, said she is thrilled that someone is putting love into that land again.
“When it was in its prime, it was a beautiful, teeming place. Everybody had such great memories of growing up there,” she said. When she heard about the urban farm, “I was really tickled, because I thought that would have made my grandfather happy.”
This spring and summer, the land will become home to annual vegetables, tree and cane fruits, herbal and medicinal plants, and a “forest garden.” Williams’ friend Taylor Nelson is going to experiment with growing edibles in a small stand of trees that remains near Alview Avenue.
The plantings will be done with permaculture principles in mind. Permaculture is a system that factors in how each element can support those around it. In agriculture, for example, it might refer to growing plants that draw useful insects to other plants or repel pests. These principles help to create healthier and more sustainable gardens.
Williams would like to start a weekly farm stand later this year, and hopes other producers will want to sell their goods at his market, as well. He also wants to someday grow enough to sell to the Roanoke Natural Foods Co-op and local restaurants.
“I think it’s exciting what he’s doing,” said Bruce Phlegar, general manager of the co-op. “Little by little, these cool little projects are starting to change the landscape of Roanoke.”
The existing farmers markets, the community gardens in southeast and northwest Roanoke, and Williams’ 10th Street project are all part of what Phlegar said the co-op’s board of directors has empowered them to do “to support local agriculture and local food systems.”
City Planning Administrator Chris Chittum said he could see the urban farm potentially being a catalyst for the further development of a village center. “We have tried to establish these locations … around the city and some are taking off and some are not,” he said. “This kind of thing can plant a seed.”
To Williams, the permaculture principle can be applied not just to the growth of his farm, but to the growth of rapport and new opportunities along the 10th Street corridor.
“In a broader sense, the local farm becomes an element in the broader sociology of the place,” he said.
Jeanette Manns, co-chairwoman of the Washington Park Alliance for Neighborhoods, agreed. Manns said she hopes the farm will provide fresh produce for the neighborhood, perhaps a few jobs, and general beautification of the area.
“So far, it has made a big difference just to clean it up,” she said. “That kind of rebuilds our village. That is the kind of neighbor we need.”