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.There are currently no comments highlighted.