Developers, residents propose ideas for West Salem Body Shop

More than 75 people came to the Aug. 3 public forum to hear ideas for and ask questions
about development of the former West Salem Body Shop.

Loft apartments, a non-franchise restaurant – and local citizens’ ideas for an art and performance public use venue –filled 90 minutes of discussion by developers and people who have ideas for the now-vacant West Salem Body Shop building in Salem.

More than 75 curious people came to a public forum inside largely gutted 8 West Main on Aug. 3, to see the interior for themselves and hear what developers Ed Walker, Brent Cochran and others who make up Live Oak Partners LLC have in mind.

Cochran talked and answered questions about plans to build at least 10 small apartments, about 500-700 square feet – or 14 apartments if the entire second floor were used – and a 2,000-square-foot restaurant with bar in the front portion facing the sidewalk in the 14,000-square-foot building.

He said there is a verbal agreement for a restaurant, but declined to give the name or style of the restaurant other than to say the owner has 40 other restaurants in Virginia, and estimated the restaurants have $1.5 million in gross revenue annually.

West Salem Body Shop has been an auto dealer and repair shop since 1925 – an earlier date than previously known, according to the grandson of the original owner – is particularly interesting to many citizens not only because it is a landmark in the center of the city, but also because City of Salem development money is involved through the Industrial Development Authority, and developers purchased the building from the city. Developers have agreed to spend at least $1.7 million renovating it.

Cochran said he believes it could be ready for “by April 1, 2018. We want to get rolling.” Developers have already started removing non-essential parts of the building that are not original. The night of the meeting the building smelled of pressure-washed walls, mildew, old wood and dust.

He said offices and retail space could be put on the street level of the building, and agreed with some citizen comments that a restaurant could possibly be moved to the back of the first floor. Garage doors to the entrance would have to be raised, rather than serving as the main entrance.

Surprises of the evening were black-and-white photos brought by Jim Robertson, a grandson of the late Posie Robertson who built the building. They show employees and the freight elevator, which raised vehicles between floors. One shows the elder Robertson leaning back in his chair in the office with a 1925 calendar visible on the wall behind him. Previously it was believed the building was completed in 1926.

Several people expressed disappointment that plans do not call for an elevator to be added, and that the freight elevator has to be locked in place for safety and under the Virginia Department of Historic Resources guidelines developers have to adhere to for historic tax credits.

Cochran said a new staircase will be built adjacent to the freight elevator. Adding a new elevator would be too expensive, he said.

Many of the architectural features will remain, such as immense wooden beams on the second floor that Cochran said would be clear coated.

“When you go up there and look up, that’s exactly the way it will look,” Cochran said. He pointed out that under the historic guidelines, “We can’t change the configuration [of the building]. We can clean the brick, add new lights.” The show windows in the front of the building also have to be kept, he said.

Ornate wooden ceiling tiles were partially stripped to show the wood above the gathering Thursday night. Pressed tin trim along the edges was also visible.

“It’s still a blank canvas what we are going to do with the back of the building,” Cochran said, in response to a question from Danny Harris, whose wife, Kathy, is a granddaughter of Posie Robertson.

In response to some citizen requests to have a music and arts event venue in the space and behind the building in the parking lot, Cochran said “We’re totally open to that idea, but we need financiers who are going to invest and run it and book it.”

He asked for a show of hands if anyone in the audience would do that. Only Broad Street resident Stella Reinhard raised her hands.

Reinhard spoke at the end of the meeting, showing her artistic renderings of her alternate vision for the space. She mentioned other communities such as Asheville, N.C.; Richmond’s old trolley station, the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria that have converted spaces to attract adults and kids.

Salem High School art teacher Gibby Gibson also encouraged developers to consider gallery space and artists’ production areas.

“We need to think what else do we need here that we don’t have,” Reinhard said. “Apartments would create a dead zone in one of our best buildings downtown. A few people will enjoy this big open space, the people who rent the apartments and those who come to the restaurant.”

She proposed apartments should be built instead on the city-owned parking lot at the corner of South Broad and Calhoun streets.

The same developers also own the old Peacock-Salem Cleaners building on Boulevard, and the former Valleydale Meat Packers building on Indiana, as well as air rights over the Salem Farmers Market. Cochran said that evening that anything related to those air rights “Is just a long idea. We don’t have any specific plans.”