New Energy in Downtown Norfolk

Hilton Norfolk the Main. The Bacon family stayed here during my dad’s funeral. We had other priorities at the time than hitting the rooftop bar. But we may be back!

Hampton Roads may be stuck in the economic doldrums, lagging the state and national economic growth rate over the past decade, but considerable change — positive change — has been taking place under the surface. Spurred by booming residential development, the city of Norfolk’s downtown is looking more vibrant than any time I remember seeing it.

My impression of downtown Norfolk was shaped in the summer in 1973 when I interned with the Virginian-Pilot as a college student. I would venture across Brambleton Ave. to buy lunch at a sandwich shop whose name I can no longer recall — great Italian hoagies, though — and would stroll down Granby Street, fascinated by the gin joints and titty bars catering to sailors and merchant seamen. The words that come to mind are sleazy and dilapidated. Norfolk was still an important regional finance center, so people were willing to work downtown, but no one, other than homeless people, would dream of living there.

Over the succeeding decades, city authorities pumped millions of dollars into urban revitalization projects of varying merit. The Waterside retail development. Hotels and conference centers. Nauticus. MacArthur Mall. The cruise ship terminal. And probably a lot more that I can’t recall offhand. It was an uphill battle as downtown retail collapsed, the local banking industry was absorbed by out-of-state giants, and, other than the location of the Norfolk Southern headquarters, the private sector showed few signs of vitality.

But something happened the past few years while I wasn’t paying close attention. Downtown residential is hot. Drive down Boush Street, and you’ll see wall-to-wall townhouses and apartment buildings for blocks on end. A major bank tower is being converted from commercial to residential. And Hilton’s Norfolk the Main hotel has just opened an amazing new facility. I’m sure there’s a lot more going on that I’m not aware of. But downtown appears to be developing a great restaurant scene, and I expect it is experiencing a revival of small-scale retail and service businesses catering to the growing residential population.

Downtown Norfolk has several assets. It has inherited a grid street system, a wealth of pre-20th century architecture and a mix of office, retail and residential development. It has cultural amenities such as the MacArthur Museum and the Chrysler Museum (just outside of downtown). And it has a fantastic working waterfront.

Before my dad passed a month ago, he and my stepmom lived in a high-rise senior living facility on the waterfront just a few blocks from downtown. From the 12th floor, they enjoyed a panoramic view of the Elizabeth River with its port cranes, shipbuilding docks and all manner of vessels chugging up and down the waterway.  My dad would stand out on the balcony with his telescope and inspect every inch of the landscape. The view isn’t anything you would call beautiful, but it is mesmerizing — there is so much going on. It never gets dull.

I haven’t spent enough time in Norfolk to get a keen sense of what is happening downtown. Who is moving into all these apartments and condos — Millennials or old guys? Are there a lot of start-ups forming? Is an ecosystem of innovation taking root? Is the changing look of downtown an impressive but economically sterile trend, or does it portend a wave of entrepreneurial energy? I can’t say. What I can tell you is that Norfolk is not stagnating. It is changing. It is reinventing itself. And I can’t help but think that’s a good thing.

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5 responses to “New Energy in Downtown Norfolk

  1. Here’s the elephant in the room for Norfolk and Virginia Beach. For the first time in my life, I’ve seen someone make a residential decision based on climate change.

    A friend’s child is graduating from college w/ a degree in engineering. She had some good offers including one in Norfolk. She actually preferred Norfolk to the other cities, but is going to Raleigh. Why? Because the flooding stories about Tidewater are unavoidable now. She was really worried about flooding based on media reports in the past couple of years coming out of Tidewater.

    Which makes me wonder how many other people are seeing the reports and starting to reject the area.

    It’s a shame. I like Norfolk. But the bad PR in the past couple of years is costing it at least one good engineer (and I suspect some other Millennials).

  2. Norfolk grew steadily into the 1960s. The population peaked around 1970 and then fell steadily over the next 30 years bottoming out around 2000. From 2000 to 2015 Norfolk’s population grew 5.1% while the population of the US grew 13.3%.

    Jim’s observation about the improving housing stock in Norfolk is interesting. The new (presumably upscale) housing is not being taken up by new arrivals while the long time residents remain. For that to be true Norfolk’s population would have increased at least at the same pace as the US. I suspect that Norfolk, like many other US cities, is undergoing a substantial demographic change. Wealthier people are moving in while less affluent people are moving out. I also will guess that these changing demographics are changing the racial composition of American cities.

    Washington, DC saw its population peak around 1950. The population steadily fell from about 800,000 in 1950 to 575,000 in 2000. During that time (around 1960) DC became majority black. From 2000 to 2016 DC’s population grew from 575,000 to 681,000 ( a rise of 19%). In 2011 DC ceased to be majority black. In the 1970s DC’s population was 71% African American. Today, Washington is 48% African American. In fact, while the population of DC soared from 2000 to 2016 the African American population declined in absolute terms.

    What will the cities of Norfolk and DC look like in 20 years if these trends continue?

    Washington, DC will have a population of about 850,000 with a population density considerably higher than today’s City of Chicago. It will be 53% non-latino white. It will also easily be the wealthiest city in the US in terms of median family income.

    How do these trends fit with Jim Bacon’s urbanization narrative?

  3. Were you a summer intern at the Pilot in the summer of 1973? So was I! I don’t remember you.

  4. Yeah, I graduated in 74. I think you were 75. I went right to work at a small daily in eastern NC after graduation.

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