Saturday, July 11, 2009
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History meets versatility: Former Billy's Ritz site gets a makeover

Renovations at the former Billy's Ritz restaurant signal a new restaurant and space for much more.

A construction permit is posted on an exterior window.

Photos by Kyle Green | The Roanoke Times

A construction permit is posted on an exterior window.

Some interior demolition work was done after Billy's Ritz closed, but it was halted in fall.

Some interior demolition work was done after Billy's Ritz closed, but it was halted in fall.

The connected buildings at 10 and 102 Market St. in downtown Roanoke housed a string of hotels prior to Billy's Ritz.

The connected buildings at 10 and 102 Market St. in downtown Roanoke housed a string of hotels prior to Billy's Ritz.

A restaurant is planned for the site's ground floor, but the owners say they are mulling several ideas — including a hotel — for the upper floors.

A restaurant is planned for the site's ground floor, but the owners say they are mulling several ideas — including a hotel — for the upper floors.

The owners of a prominent downtown landmark are shelling out a huge sum of money to spruce up their property, but what actually will appear there still is a puzzle -- at least to the public.

A permit for $760,000 in renovation work, including demolition, window replacements and the removal of fire escapes, recently was approved for the former Billy's Ritz restaurant site on Market Street in downtown Roanoke. This is the latest signal that the project, poised to eventually house a new restaurant, is in revival mode.

Last fall, much of the renovation work had stopped in its tracks. Some nearby retailers called the tall, connected buildings at 10 and 102 Market St. an eyesore. Glass had been punched out of the windows, and a chain link fence stretched across the sidewalk. Some interior demolition work had occurred, but necessary permits had expired.

The property sits at an important and visible spot in the city's downtown. On the other end of its block stands the heralded Taubman Museum of Art, which debuted in November.

Now, crews are poised to install new windows and finish cleaning up the two brick structures, built in the early 1900s and home to the upscale Billy's Ritz restaurant for 27 years.

Various advertising signs were placed in front of the windows in November just ahead of the Taubman's opening, but the signs violated a city zoning ordinance and were taken down several months ago, said Jeff Shawver, city building commissioner.

Market Street Partners, a limited liability company, purchased these brick structures last year for $1.7 million from John and Betsy Williams, the owners and restaurateurs of Billy's Ritz. The buildings measure 21,700 square feet total.

Neal Keesee, a Roanoke lawyer and a partner in Market Street Partners, said this week that a restaurant still is planned for the buildings' first floor, but he would not offer details about the new food business. He expects the new eatery to open in the fall.

Keesee did not discuss specifically why progress on this project has been slow.

"Rehabbing buildings is a process," he said.

As for the upper levels of these three- and four-story structures, Keesee said the partners still are considering "various alternatives."

Since last year, they have been considering a hotel for the top floors, though that's just one idea, he said.

Urgency in completing the project does not appear to be Keesee's primary concern.

"We weren't in a hurry," he said.

The property once housed a string of hotels, most recently the 60-room Ames Hotel, which was there for 30 years, according to city records.

Roger Neel, a well-known Roanoke restaurateur who owns Corned Beef & Co., Frankie Rowland's Steak House and 419 West, also is a partner in Market Street Partners. Keesee would not disclose the names of other partners.

Last year, the Roanoke Architectural Review Board endorsed plans to install a glass-and-metal-covered addition to the top of the former Billy's Ritz buildings. It's unclear if these plans still are intact.

At a review board meeting in March, project manager Rob Ragatti said he wanted to "table" the fifth addition to the structures, according to the meeting's minutes.

Meanwhile, the state of the former Billy's Ritz is not alarming to some visitors to Roanoke's downtown.

"In Cincinnati, we have a lot of buildings that look like that," said Dianne Cianchetti, as she walked out of the Roanoke City Market Building on Friday. The structures look as if they are under renovation, similar to sections of Cincinnati's downtown that are being renovated for residential spaces, said Cianchetti, who was in the area to visit family at Smith Mountain Lake.

Historic rehab is worth the investment, said John Bohon of Tampa, Fla., who was in town for a family reunion and staying at the Hotel Roanoke.

These kinds of historic buildings are "what give places like this its character," Bohon said as he strolled the downtown Roanoke streets with his family on Friday.

Similarly, the unfinished state of the restaurant site has not deterred visitors to the Taubman Museum, said Kimberly Templeton, the museum's director of external affairs. That's because "they've kept the site clean," she said.

Still, any plans for a restaurant and more business at the property would benefit the museum, Templeton added.

"We'd like to see it move forward," she said.

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