US Development – Preserving Norfolk’s Past

5 12 2009

The Virginian-Pilot has reported that a South Carolina company, US Development, has purchased the Union Mission building, formerly the Navy YMCA building. They plan on renovating the structure and converting the building into 90 apartments. These units will be priced for the middle class, starting at $800/month. In addition to this great move for the Union Mission building, the company also announced that they have similar plans for at least 4 additional historic downtown properties, totaling $100 million and 1,500 new apartments. This is a excellent opportunity for the City of Norfolk and its residents. The increase in affordable living space downtown will increase the amount of people that live downtown. Most of these new, middle-class renters will be more likely to walk where they need to go and/or take public transportation. This, in turn, will be better for downtown shops and restaurants, the mall, and even the upscale apartments and condos, which will be more desirable when the street-scape is flourishing.

Norfolk has spent so much time and effort erasing our past that we have already lost so many buildings. Not too long ago (2007), Norfolk demolished three historic buildings to construct a four-star hotel. At the time, they couldn’t wait. It just had to be done right then or the building would not get built and the world would end. So they tore them down. Going on three years later, the still-vacant lot sits, covered in grass and gravel. The city says that they are waiting for the economy. I wonder how they could be waiting if it was supposed to be built two years ago when the economy was good.

Regardless, it is about time that we had a developer who had an actual interest in preserving historic buildings instead of tearing them down. Perhaps this is the beginning of a new path for Downtown. The district will actually grow, without the city’s help. More residents are needed Downtown to truly make a successful downtown. It is a shame that our council could not see that. Instead, they tore down buildings and catered toward the wealthy and the upscale. All of that is nice, but it won’t survive without the people of the middle class.


Downtown Anchors?

23 11 2009

Everyone knows that nearly every shopping center in the United States relies on “anchor stores,” or large department stores or “big box” stores to bring in the interest sufficient for generated foot traffic to the small stores situated between each anchor. Without these anchors, most malls would close down quickly.

MacArthur Center


  • Dillard’s
  • Nordstroms
  • Regal
Chesapeake Square Mall


  • Macy’s
  • JCPenney
  • Sears
  • Target
Gallery at Military Circle


  • Cinemark
  • JCPenney
  • Macy’s
  • Sears
Lynnhaven Mall


  • JCPenney
  • Dillard’s
  • Macy’s
  • AMC
  • Dick’s
Pembroke Mall


  • Sears
  • Kohl’s
  • Stein Mart
  • Regal
Greenbrier Mall


  • Macy’s
  • JCPennys
  • Dillard’s
  • Sears

My question is this: Why can that same principle not be applied to Downtown in general? For example, I think a Macy’s would make a great fit into Downtown’s plan and clientele. I don’t think, however, that it should be part of MacArthur Center. Instead, I think that Macy’s would be a good fit somewhere outside, such as the building on Market between Granby and Monticello (used to be TCC offices and Targeted Publications). This location would be in good proximity to MacArthur. Shoppers would shop at Macy’s and cross the street to MacArthur Center. In fact, compared to standard malls like Greenbriers, with four anchors, this location would be a de-facto fourth anchor to MacArthur.  However, because it is outside, the patrons would be inclined to shop around on Granby Street, leading to an increase in demand for Granby Street storefronts. As for the Center’s elusive third anchor, I think that something like a Best Buy (or better yet, their new competition in the region, hhgregg) would be good. A Target would be another good store to have, but since Norfolk has no full electronics store, the hhgregg might be a better option. This third anchor would be included in the current plan, of course. If you are unfamiliar, Norfolk’s vision of the third anchor lot is a high rise, mixed-use building, including an anchor, perimeter storefront shops, and apartments/condos and/or offices upstairs. This plan would do wonders for the Center, due to its residential population.

Norfolk 2020 Plan

Norfolk needs to start looking at Downtown as an area with faded boundaries. They have spent that past 30 years trying to divide it. We have office space on Main St., Commercial Retail on Granby St., etc. We need to mix this up a bit. Stores won’t move in by themselves unless there is sufficient foot traffic. You can’t get foot traffic without having residential towers. Norfolk needs to try to get these stores to work with developers to build mixed use, high-rise residential buildings with plenty of storefront shops. Additionally, they need to attract larger retailers as “anchors” Downtown. A full-time residential population, combined with jobs and retail, is the key to a successful, viable Downtown.

Cambie St & W 7th Ave., Vancouver - Note the Urban Home Depot. Across the street is an Urban Best Buy. There are condos on top of each of these buildings

Virginia Beach Comprehensive Plan

10 11 2009

While reviewing the Final Draft of the City of Virginia Beach’s Comprehensive Plan, my initial reaction was a positive one. A number of their so-called “Strategic Growth Areas” (SGA) were planned to have increased density with a focus on mixed use and mass transit. They even discussed a switch to the use of Form-Based Zoning in the SGAs. Unfortunately, they failed to follow through on their own recommendations. They start out with comments such as, “Instead of relying on the remaining inventory of underdeveloped land to absorb growth, the City carefully defined areas planned to accommodate and absorb urban growth called ‘Strategic Growth Areas.’” Then they define characteristics of the ‘Urban Area’ in the SGAs. Among these characteristics are “higher density residential uses” and “absence of single-family detached units.” This is interesting, mainly because in the first SGA defined in the plan, Burton Station, has the Planning Department making this very contradictory recommendation: “Respect and retain the existing houses in the neighborhood along Burton Station Road and maintain the low density character of this neighborhood.” (Emphasis added) Now, I understand the need to respect the people that live there, but the majority of this SGA is industrial. The small amount of land that has potential to be redeveloped is made up of a trailer park, woods, fields, and mud holes. In fact, aside from the trailer park, there is no technical ‘neighborhood’ in existence here. It is no more than a rural road with fewer than 20 homes and approximately 30 residents.

Does this mean the city wants to maintain the trailer park? Yeah, right. According to the actual Burton Station plan from the Planning Department, even the options that keep it low density force the residents to move. In fact, according to the Burton Station plan, the City of Virginia Beach would work to reconfigure the Lake Wright golf course (City of Norfolk property) into the Burton Station area and then create a golf course community around it. How is a golf course community fit in with their Urban vision?

Overall, I applaud their effort and most of their plan. The new form-based zoning code will certainly curb sprawl as long as the city sticks to it. Sticking to it is going to require increasing density as density increases. In fact, if Virginia Beach can stick to this way of zoning, they will be catering less to suburbanism than Norfolk. Norfolk still has the older, suburban zoning, which is completely contrary to urban density. Good job Virginia Beach and keep up the good work.

Restoring the Old – Herman Court Condominiums

4 11 2009

Herman Court Condominiums

Here is yet another example of a developer renovating an old, dilapidated building and converting it into a modern space. Formerly an abandoned apartment building, the building, now Herman Court Condominiums, is made up of 16 condos ranging in price from $149,900 to $184,900. This method is much more effective than tearing the building down and hoping for new construction, as the city has done in the past. This project was started by Metro Housing Group with a partnership with the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority. While I do not like the idea of having a surface parking lot taking up the lot next door, I do understand that, for the time being, off-street parking is almost a must unless the site is in an established walkable community. I was also happy to see that the condos were not the only ‘new’ on the block. There were multiple houses on the block and dozens in the immediate area that have been renovated.


When I was little, I was always confused when we played the game Monopoly. I always would ask, “why is Park Place the second most valuable property?” This confused me because the only Park Place I knew was definitely not going to get in the top group on any scale. Now, however, it is changing. A lot of new development and renovations have taken place there. If you have not been through lately, it is time you stopped by. I am not saying that it is at a peak yet, but it has certainly started the journey upwards. There are many homes left to go that need some fixing up. Not all of these I would call blighted or anything like that. These are just homes that, in some cases, have only had one owner for the past 50 years and just are in need of some updating.

Good job Norfolk. Good job NRHA.

If you are interested, please contact Linda McBurney at 757-289-5674. With financing by the Virginia Housing Development Authority, you could own one of these for little or no money down. It is within a walk to the park and the zoo. It is within a 5 minute bus ride to Downtown Norfolk. Not bad for under $1000/month.


7 10 2009

If you read the paper yesterday, there was an article regarding a proposal to turn waterside into a farmer’s market. I think this would be a great idea, if done properly. I have heard many people talk about what it used to be. I have heard it compared to Harborplace in Baltimore. There are many reasons why I do not think that these are cases that could be successful in the Waterside of 2009, however, I think that some valuable lessons could be learned from them.

First, let’s talk about Harborplace. What is commonly referred to as Harborplace is actually made up of three structures. The first two, the Pratt Street  and the Light Street Pavilions, are the original two. They were built in 1980 and are similar in shape and design of our very own Waterside. Combined, they are roughly 152,000 sq.ft., which is slightly larger than Waterside’s 130,000 sq.ft.. The third building in the Harborplace complex is called The Gallery at Harborplace, which measures in at 132,000 sq.ft.. As you can see, Harborplace is over twice the size of Waterside (Harborplace combined: 284,000 sq.ft.). It’s size definitely contributes to its success.

Harborplace simply cannot be compared to Waterside. Not just because of the size difference, but because of the area that it is located in. Harborplace is the largest retail center in Downtown Baltimore, whereas Downtown Norfolk has MacArthur Center, which has around 500,000 sq.ft of leasable space. Overall, Downtown Baltimore has 2.1 million sq.ft of retail space compared to Downtown Norfolk’s nearly 5 million sq.ft.. Out of the Baltimore MSA’s population of 2.7 million, only 40,000 (1.5%)actually live in Downtown Baltimore. In Norfolk, whose MSA population is 1.6 million, only 3,700 (0.2%) people live Downtown. I may not be an economist, but I do understand the Law of Supply & Demand. Baltimore has 52 sq.ft. of retail space per person. Norfolk, on the other hand, has a whopping 1,351 sq.ft per person. In other words, Baltimore has a high residential population to regularly support its Downtown retail shops. Norfolk has to rely on outside visitors.

Lesson learned: increase residency. I think we are well on out way. With the soon-to-be-completed Belmont at Freemason and a ever-growing list of planned projects, the population is set for a steady increase. Throw in the new light rail and the projects that it will bring, including the newly-released high-density development on the Virginia Beach-side of Newtown Road, as Downtown’s population and foot traffic will make it a prime site for redeveloping existing sites and expanding new ones.

As far as Waterside is concerned specifically, I think that the city needs to help relocate (not close) the nightclubs. The nightclubs should have a place downtown, as a well-managed nightlife can add a youthful appeal that can lead to increased residency. They need to completely renovate the inside to make it brighter and give it the waterfront views that it deserves (and the the name implies). Without the nightclubs, the upstairs should be re-opened, to allows people on the second floor to see down to the first in a open atmosphere. It should focus on local shops, but allow for chains. It should without-a-doubt have a high-end seafood restaurant. While doing all of this, it should focus on no losing current tenants who, after sticking through what Waterside has become, deserve to take their rightful place in a new facility. Waterside was once looked to by cities nationwide, as a model on which to build their very own marketplaces. Waterside deserves a remodel. Norfolk deserves the icon that Waterside once was.