From the Magazine: Ed Walker ‘96L has a Vision for Downtown Roanoke

Lexington, VA • Friday, July 15, 2011

Roanoke, Va., native Ed Walker '96L (left) has reshaped some of the city's most significant buildings, breathing life into once-defunct neighborhoods. Cooper Youell '98L (right), a commercial lawyer at Whitlow & Youell P.L.C., serves as counsel for all of Walker's deals.

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Ed Walker '96L applied to only one law school.

Susan Palmer '85L, who was the W&L dean of admissions at the time, asked him why he would foolishly apply to only one. Walker said, "It's the only place I want to be." He told her he would keep trying until they let him in—so better sooner, rather than later.

This persistence and determination is what friends, family and colleagues recognize in Walker, the managing member of ReGeneration Partners L.L.C. and CityWorks L.L.C. He has invested millions in Roanoke, Va., strengthening the city of almost 100,000 through real estate development and social entrepreneurship. He has a fresh approach—he uses the profits of ReGeneration Partners to fund the projects of CityWorks.

A Roanoke native and third-generation lawyer, Walker returned to his hometown after graduation to work at Mundy, Rogers & Frith focusing on civil litigation and due diligence reviews for businesses. But not only did law practice prove to be too structured for his liking, Walker also wondered how a lawyer's salary was going to finance his children's education. He had loved his boarding-school experience at Alexandria's Episcopal High School, and when his first child was born, he realized he wanted his son to have the same quality of education.

Figuring equity from real estate could help, he took out a loan in 2000 to finance his purchase of a building in Grandin Village in Roanoke. The building would pay for itself in 15 years, he hoped. "I just couldn't understand how I was going to pay these educational expenses down the line," Walker said. "So my first thought when I bought the building wasn't to change my career track, but then when I did it, I realized it was consistent with my interests and aptitudes."

In 2002, he decided he wanted to "have an impact on at-risk neighborhoods" and see differences transpire within Roanoke's communities. He also wanted to be more available to his wife, Katherine, and two sons, Jackson and Finn. He quit practicing law. "When I kept bumping into the creative limitations of law is when I started recognizing the need for more control over how I spent my time," he explained.

Though Walker says his desire to change the community is his main motivator, he also embraces the importance of the financial factor. "If I'm not fiscally responsible and successful, I would lose my ability to fund the CityWorks projects and the impact those projects have on the community," he said.

Walker's closest colleague, Cooper Youell '98L, agrees that Walker is much more interested in the results he provides for people. Youell, a commercial lawyer at Whitlow & Youell P.L.C. who serves as counsel for all of Walker's deals, says his relationship with Walker is much more than the typical lawyer-client relationship. "Making money is not the bottom line for him," Youell explained.

Take the Downtown Music Lab, for example. In 1999, Walker founded the nonprofit after-school program for teenagers, especially underprivileged students, to play and record music. The idea emerged when Walker attended a wedding where the bride asked for donations to a similar institution in Charlottesville in lieu of wedding gifts. The famous musician-singer Dave Matthews was instrumental in the creation of the Charlottesville lab, and he also donated $10,000 to Walker's version in Roanoke.

Beth Macy, a journalist for The Roanoke Times, has known Walker since he began practicing law. She said people sometimes think Walker is just a wealthy developer and don't see the real reason why he's doing this work. "He has this civic mission to make this a cooler city, a city that's more equitable, a city with better housing, and not just for middle-class people but for all people," she said.

Working with an Empty Room

Walker's approach to mixing real estate redevelopment and social entrepreneurship is complex. He describes it as figuring out ways to convert community weaknesses into community strengths. He takes a rundown building in a neighborhood and figures out how he can revitalize it so that the entire neighborhood will follow. "I want to make the city stronger from the inside out."

Using a Kirk Avenue storefront as an example, Walker starts with an empty room. "You've got a space. You've got 365 days and 365 nights and sort of an infinite number of people who have a particular passion or want to do something," he said.

That's why he and colleagues started Kirk Avenue Music Hall. Music revitalizes a community better than almost anything, he believes. So in the first year of using an empty space on Kirk Avenue, he and his colleagues hosted 100 nights of live music with 13 Grammy winners.

"That sounds like a lot, right? But what's interesting is it's not even a third of the available inventory of time that the empty room had," he said. "There are 265 other nights that something interesting could be going on—not to mention that you haven't even touched the days."

An acquaintance, Jason Garnett, who used to work at the Grandin Theatre—a historic and decaying theater that Walker helped raise funds for and reopen in 2002—has developed a community micro-theater in space shared with the music hall. "So Jason becomes available. He's super talented and came in and started screening all types of movies, from skateboard movies to 'Citizen Kane' to documentaries—stuff that would never get on a commercial screen," Walker said.

Now, Shadowbox Community Microcinema screens 90 films a year, meaning the space shared with the Music Hall is used for a total of 190 nights, just past 50 percent of the available inventory of time. "The impact of both of those things on the community has been explosive," Walker said. "Now Roanoke has an edgy movie theatre and a music venue where bands from Nashville, New York, Austin—and as far away as L.A.—think it's one of the best rooms they play."

Shadowbox just received the prestigious Perry F. Kendig Award and Roanoker Magazine's award for What's Happening in Roanoke.

Walker's main point is that that anywhere can be somewhere as long as people care. "This notion that Roanoke or Buena Vista or Lynchburg is nowhere is sort of a fallacy," he said. "If you've got interesting people, and they've got a place to exercise their ideas and passions, it's place making—where you take nothing and make it something."

He's not so worried about the Lexingtons of the world because "higher education is the greatest place-making oxygenator there is. But for places like Roanoke that don't have a resident four-year university, you have to create the same effect," he explained.

Revitalizing Downtown

Ed Walker's first major project was the purchase and renovation of the former Colonial American Bank into upscale condos. Walker lives with his family on the top floor. A more recent project, The Hancock Building, a few blocks away, used to house Grand Piano & Furniture Co. The restoration revealed the building's stunning Art Deco architecture. The space now houses 58 apartments. Walker's renovation of the Cotton Mill, which offers affordable housing, transformed a neighborhood of vacant, run-down buildings and homes. "I got into real estate development not because I was interested in real estate but because I was interested in community strength and community capital," said Walker. "It turns out that real estate is a super effective way to do that."
Walker doesn't make any money off his social entrepreneur activities, so he knows that his construction projects have to make money. And they do. His list of projects has become so long that he even forgets to mention them all.

"You can't drive downtown without seeing his work," Macy said. "He was totally on the forefront of renovating downtown living."

Walker has even become an example of the way of life he's trying to create. In 2003, he paid $1.4 million for his first big investment downtown, the former Colonial American Bank headquarters. He renovated 10 floors into upscale condos that range in size from 3,000 to 4,800 square feet and in price from $350,000 to $1 million. He and his family now live on the top floor.

The Hancock Building, a few blocks away, is a more recent project. He and his colleagues hoped that that the former furniture store had something great underneath its drab exterior, and when they stripped off the bricks, they uncovered its stunning Art Deco architecture. The building now houses 58 apartments. He said that after working on the Hancock building, he sees more people outside walking and riding bikes—evidence that downtown living is slowly coming back to life.

"The Hancock project was huge because it's not luxury apartments," Macy noted. "It brought in a diversity of people who can now afford to live downtown."

Diversity is something that Walker hopes to include in most of his projects. He wants to figure out how to mix the African-American historic district with the rest of the city. Roanoke is severely segregated, and Walker is determined to introduce more integration.

One project, the Cotton Mill, was in a high-crime neighborhood, and he renovated the old mill into apartment spaces at affordable prices. Near the Cotton Mill, he is renovating a building on Day Avenue that previously received more police 911 calls than any other building in the city. He hopes that going house by house and area by area, he can improve the quality of life for all Roanoke residents.

Walker also plans to work on the nearby River House, a 146,000-square-foot structure overlooking the Roanoke River that was built in the 1920s and used as a storage facility. He wants to include a restaurant, coffee shop and gardens. The 450-house historic district around the River House would then receive historic tax credits, and the value of houses would stabilize and improve.

Some of his less-recognized work is his favorite. Eight years ago, Walker created Tarpley Park out of an overgrown and littered green space. Now, each week, hundreds of families visit the well-manicured lawn and children play on the equipment, which includes his son's swing set. He noticed soon afterward that businesses nearby painted their buildings and switched their awnings to make the area around the park nicer.

Right now Walker is mainly focused on finishing the historic Patrick Henry Hotel, a long-deteriorating landmark. The $24 million project will convert the old hotel into a 134-apartment complex with an upscale restaurant and commercial space. Walker is even redoing the hotel's famous ballroom. The facility opened at the end of June.

Youell clearly sees Walker's influence. When he arrived in Roanoke in 1998, he noticed the city went to sleep after work during the week. "The vibrancy and energy downtown now has spawned additional projects, and Walker was at the helm when things started to change," Youell said. "He's not the only factor, but I do believe he was the most important factor." Walker countered, "Without Coop, I don't think any of these projects would have succeeded. The only characteristic that surpasses his legal ability is his quality as a person. Great lawyer. Great colleague. Great friend."

"Huge, profound influence" of Law School

Although he received the R. Edwin Burnette Jr. Young Lawyer of the Year Award from the Virginia State Bar Association in 2000, Walker doubts whether he would have been a great lawyer. "I was one of the very worst law students, and yet, I had an amazingly outstanding experience at law school," he said. "I appreciate it consciously almost every day."

He noted that as a creative person, the rigor and analysis that law school demanded forced him to learn and balanced him out. "You have a kite in the sky, but someone has to hold the string—so law school sort of provided me with that."

The "coolest thing about legal education is that you can do almost anything with it. Legal training most certainly helped me with the contracts and financing aspects of development, but its truest value was so much greater than that," he said.

He chose W&L because of its size and quality faculty. After attending one year at St. Andrews University in Scotland, and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill for his undergraduate studies, he wanted a smaller school, and he fell in love with Lexington. Immediately, he realized how impressive the professors were. "The teachers and the way they taught impacted me more than the underlying material, and maybe that's the sign of a great teacher," he said.

He particularly remembers Sam Calhoun's classes and Brian Murchison's administrative law class. He refers to both of them as among the greatest professors in the "whole, wide world."

Walker isn't sure that he could have accomplished any of what's done today without the influence of the Law School. "It's not only the critical thinking and exposure to varieties of knowledge, but it's the W&L influence—how you do things, and collegiality and cooperation and a certain spirit and level of excellence," he said. "It's a way of doing things that really are very unusual and sort of unique to W&L."

Days before graduation, Walker sought out Dean Palmer, who had been influential in granting him admission. "I felt as though I should apologize to her for not performing better during law school," he said. To this day, Palmer, now associate dean of student affairs at South Carolina School of Law, still remembers Walker as "a terrific guy." And Walker still remembers what Palmer told him that day in her office.

"Ed, I didn't support your admission into law school because I thought necessarily that you'd be a great law student. I supported your admission because I thought you might do good things after law school."

- by Melissa Powell '11

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