Cathy Coleman, the executive director of the Downtown Norfolk Council, remembers looking out her office window onto Granby Mall and seeing a drug deal followed by a prostitute soliciting passersby.
Granby Mall had litte to offer at the time except a handful of restaurants, a few low-end clothing shops and a lot of decaying and empty buildings. The downtown waterfront was derelict.
Even five years ago, long after the pedestrian mall had been reopened as a street and the city had invested millions in downtown, "you could shoot a cannon down Granby Street after dark and not hit a car," notes longtime Mayor Paul Fraim.
Today, the main complaint about Granby Street is that you can’t find on-street parking at night. The street has once again become the center of a developing theater and restaurant district, filled with people on every night of the week.
It's an example how thoroughly Norfolk, a once decaying Navy town, has transformed itself into the vibrant, cosmopolitan heart of a metropolitan area (pop. 1.7 million) that includes Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Portsmouth and Suffolk. And it's made the leap without help from high tech or high growth by emphasizing planning -- and gambling on a huge urban mall to catalyze downtown development.
"I think what's unusual about Norfolk is that it's not in an enormous growth area that a place like Denver is, for example," says Ray Gindroz of Pittsburgh's Urban Design Associates, who have been consultants for the city over the past 17 years.
Gindroz has always preached the power of planning to city officials. "Planning," he told them, "is an entrepreneurial act, an optimistic act, saying the future is going to be better than the past. Planning at its best creates what I like to call economic flypaper. It puts out a vision that attracts investment, that attracts people."
Hemmed in by the water on the east and north and other cities on the west and south, Norfolk had to look within and face its problems. It couldn't outgrow them. So beginning in 1980, it created a series of ten-year plans for downtown, tweaking them as needed, but always with the goal of returning the city to prominence as the region’s urban core.
Blount Hunter, a retail analyst who has worked in several cities, refers to the plan for revitalizing downtown the "Norfolk model." It calls for solidifying office space, using entertainment to remove the fear factor, clustering civic, theater and museums for a regional draw, growing the restaurant base and adding residential. "Retail," he adds, "was adroitly used as one of the culminating layers of redevelopment rather than the initial element of rebirth. "
Throughout, the city has pushed developers to fit into the plan, weighing in unapologetically on everything from big picture uses to the types of lighting on the street and in parking garages.
Fraim, who has been on city council for 18 years, including the last ten as mayor, says: "We have our own vision of what the city should be like. We're not willing to let someone set the city's agenda."
That vision for a 24-hour, mixed use downtown has come into clear focus as the city's plans have become reality.
Today, there are an estimated 3,000 people living downtown, where there once lived only a few dozen. There are three major condominium and apartment developments in the works and numerous smaller residential projects. There is a stage company operating in a historic theater, a 1,500-person capacity club, an 895-seat performing arts center and more than 60 restaurants. There is a community college campus on Granby Street downtown, filling what once was a department store.
More than one million people annually visit TownPointPark on the ElizabethRiver, the site of festivals during the warm months that was a pile of rubble when Coleman first moved into her office. The battleship Wisconsin, moored at a downtown pier next to Nauticus, the national maritime museum, attracted 380,000 visitors last year. An adjacent pier expansion, built only two years ago and scheduled to be expanded into a state of the art cruise terminal by 2006, is expected to disembark more than 114,000 passengers this year. And Coleman's Downtown Norfolk Council has more than 300 members, up from 150 when she started. They contribute $1 million annually to a business improvement district that pays for "public safety ambassadors" and "clean team ambassadors" to keep downtown streets appealing.
According to a survey done by Hunter for the Downtown Norfolk Council, 71 percent of the area's residents visited downtown Norfolk for a non-work related purpose in 2003. The number of trips downtown increased to an average of 30, up from nine in 1998. The city's overall population, which had been declining, partly due to the planned clearing of housing projects and blighted areas, rose to about 239,000 from 234,000 for the three years ending in 2002. And the crime rate is 40 percent lower than ten years ago.
The Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority once owned about two-thirds of the land downtown. Today, it owns only a comparatively few prime parcels. The value of taxable properties in downtown rose to $592.2 million last year, up from $339 million in 1997.
A huge upscale urban mall, what Rod Woolard the city's director of economic development, calls "the mother of all catalysts" sits on a prime parcel of 21 acres at the downtown’s core. For years, the NRHA kept that land as parking lots, turning aside offers to develop bits and pieces of it until the right suitor came along.
That suitor was Nordstrom's, the upscale department store, which agreed to be an anchor tenant in a $300 million mall developed by Taubman Centers. Called MacArthurCenter, after the general who is buried nearby, the mall features 141 shops, restaurants and movie theaters. The then cash-strapped city gambled its mall could succeed when others had failed, investing $100 million in the venture, including $32.8 million loan to construct Nordstrom's anchor store for the mall, which opened in March 1999.
Norfolk's story, though, is more than just a tale of having a vision of a mixed-use downtown and a commitment to it. It's about patience, about refusing offers and ideas for empty parcels that didn't fit the city's vision. It's about a city paying attention to the details, demanding that developers meet its standards so that each project builds on the next. It's about psychology, about working to change the region's perception of downtown by creating "people generators" -- events and attractions that brought them down there again. Finally, it's about being fortunate enough to have a stable group of leaders -- only three mayors and two city managers -- over nearly two decades who faced difficulties, but never lost their way.
"They had a vision," Gindroz says. "It was in soft focus at the beginning. And they were able to adapt to changing times. But the vision was always to restore and enhance Norfolk as the unique center of the region."
Foremost among those leaders was Dr. Mason Andrews, a council member from 1974 to 2000 and mayor from 1992 to 1994, who saw the potential of downtown and the value of long-term planning.
Like many cities, Norfolk had turned its back on the edge of downtown bordering the ElizabethRiver. The waterfront was littered with rubble and old warehouses, including some that had been burned out and abandoned.
During the 1970s, the city's historically aggressive redevelopment and housing authority had cleared blighted structures and acquired the land. The city built new roads, including Waterside Drive, a boulevard entrance to downtown.
Throughout, the city and the NRHA acted as developers, often drawing up plans and then building projects in public/private partnerships, overseeing every detail. In the mid 1970s, for example, the NRHA began Ghent Square, a controversial redevelopment project not from downtown that created 460 townhouses facing public squares with alleys in back and schools within walking distance. The project took 15 years to complete. David Rice, the now-retired executive director, says it happened only because the NRHA acted as developer. No private company, he says, could have afforded to sit on the land that long.
It was typical of the city's desire to develop well-designed communities at its own pace. Joe Barnes, a Norfolk native and an architect who worked on Celebration, says he visited Ghent Square while doing research for the Disney town. "They were doing new urbanism before there was new urbanism," he notes.
Ghent Square, developers and city officials say, created the foundation for the resurrection of downtown by bringing residents closer to downtown. "Probably all the rest of this would still be on paper," Woolard says.
In 1983, private developers broke ground on the WorldTradeCenter, a 200,000 square-foot office project. Across the street on the ElizabethRiver, the city convinced James Rouse to build a festival marketplace named Waterside. The NRHA lent $9.8 million in surplus federal funds to help cover the $13 million construction cost. The city invested another $45.4 million in downtown improvements, including creating TownPointPark and a network of parking garages, piers, berths and promenades.
But the city also had to change the perception of downtown. So it began marketing its waterfront as an entertainment venue. "The waterfront was our biggest asset so we said let's get people down there and get things going," Rice recalled.
The visit of a single ship in 1975 turned into Harborfest, a weekend celebration each June featuring music, food and beer on the riverfront. That success quickly gave birth in 1982 to Festevents, a non-profit corporation which operates 150 days of entertainment a year in TownPointPark. More importantly, it marketed downtown as a fun place and began changing perceptions about it.
"Festevents and Waterside proved you could get people downtown," says James B. Oliver Jr., a native who was city manager from 1986 until 1998. "They were strategically important."
The city completed other projects, adding cultural amenities and office buildings during the 1980s, transforming the historic Wells Theater from an X-rated movie venue into a playhouse. A former cold storage warehouse on the water was redeveloped into 84 condominiums in 1984. Two more large office towers opened. Granby Mall became Granby Street, reopened to traffic, but it still struggled. However, parking garages and office buildings remained the dominant downtown features.
"Downtown was a whole series of small victories," Oliver says. "We just kept plugging away."
"Norfolk is fortunate that its incremental redevelopment steps were largely successful," adds Blount Hunter. "There were no fiascos that drove the elected leaders or the business leaders to take cover, thereby maintaining downtown's momentum."
Through the early 1990s, the city continued to follow its plan, adding the Sheraton Waterside Hotel and Convention Center across from Waterside, another office tower and HarborPark, a minor league baseball stadium overlooking the water. It began to move inside the horseshoe of redevelopment along the ElizabethRiver, enticing TidewaterCommunity College to open a branch campus in an old department store on Granby Street, several blocks from the water. More than 2,400 students enrolled the first year, bringing new life to the street.
There were also some missteps. Waterside stopped turning a profit in 1989. In 1993, the city began subsidizing the marketplace, eventually spending $11.6 million to keep it afloat. By 1999, with the MacArthurCenter set to open blocks away, city officials realized they needed to recast Waterside. They knew other cities had watched similar facilities go dark when retail improved downtown. So the NRHA took over Waterside in 1999 and repositioned it as an entertainment and dining destination, attracting Outback Steakhouse, Hooters, Have A Nice Day Cafe, Bar Norfolk and Crocodile Rocks Dueling Pianos. Waterside became 100 percent leased, turning a profit again in 2001.
In 1994, Nauticus, a downtown waterfront maritime museum opened to a consultant's predictions it would attract 850,000 visitors a year. Norfolk officials viewed it as a "people generator" increasing the number of trips downtown. Attendance never came near that and in its second year, the $52 million facility built with $40 million in city-issued bonds attracted only 280,000 visitors, forcing the city to chip in a $1 million subsidy. A year later, the city took over the facility from the non-profit foundation that managed it. And the city officials convinced the Navy to moor the battleship Wisconsin at Nauticus beginning in 2000, driving attendance up to nearly 400,000 people annually.
"There's been an effort for self correction when there are problems, " Gindroz observes. "That's what's interesting about the city. You don't expect government in any form to be as agile as Norfolk has been in responding to changing conditions."
City officials needed to be agile to push through MacArthur Center, coming on the heels of the problems at Nauticus making residents wary of another big investment downtown. They had been pursuing the Seattle-based Nordstrom chain for years. In 1993, Robert Smithwick, then the city's development director, accompanied by Rice wooed Jim and Bruce Nordstrom into agreeing to open a store on an urban mall downtown. "A developer couldn't have brought them here," Rice says. And Nordstrom couldn't resist the city's offer to build the store and then lease it back at $1.25 a square foot (compared with the national average of $3.43) until sales exceeded $40 million annually, when a percentage scale kicks in.
For years, the city had refused to piecemeal develop 17 acres of prime downtown land, letting it lie fallow as parking lots.
With the Nordstrom's promise in hand, city officials had their impact project for the site. They soon attracted a developer, later replaced by Taubman Centers, operators of more than two-dozen shopping malls. But the announcement of the deal in 1996 came in the wake of Nauticus failing to live up to expectations. Some civic league leaders complained the city was focusing too much time and energy on downtown and not enough on the neighborhoods. It was a big gamble. The city put up valuable properties, including its main library building, convention center, Scope arena and Town Point Park as collateral.
A consultant hired by a federation of outlying businesses opposing the project said the region was too geographically fragmented to sustain a downtown mall. "I wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole,'' said Paul G. Vogel, president of Realty Development Research Inc. of Chicago in a 1996 newspaper article.
Others, including local architects, complained that the mall was too inwardly focused to bring nearby streets back to life. They noted the mall was a huge imposition sited between a historic church on one side and a historic house and grounds on the other. While one end of the mall featured a garage entrance off an expressway, the other faced a downtown one block from Granby Street. The city conceded the garage entrance, but stood firm with Taubman, requiring a more classical, pedestrian friendly facade on the other side, the mall's "front door."
"It is a remarkable story in the sense that the city had to buy it, had to be a financial partner, but at the same time it had the guts and vision and perserverance to insist on good design," Oliver says. "We were trying to build a city, not build a shopping center. We asked how does this make a better city?"
Five years later, the arguments over whether the connections from the mall to the street were sufficient don't seem to matter (A Downtown Norfolk Council study indicated in 2003 that 30 percent of mall visitors ventured outside, up from 17 percent in 2000).
The mall opened in 1999 to good business that has steadily increased. In its first full year, tax revenue was $6.53 million, nearly $1 million more than the city needed to meet its debt payment. For 2002, the last year figures are available because of staff cutbacks in the revenue office, city officials said they did even better, turning a $3 million profit on the deal after paying the debt.
Just as important to city officials, the mall helped create a feeding frenzy of development downtown, especially the building of residential units. Shortly after the mall deal was announced, Collins Enterprises, a Stamford, Conn. developer with experience in urban infill, committed to building The Heritage at Freemason Harbour, an $18 million new urbanist project with 184 apartments a block from Granby Street and two blocks from MacArthur Center. It was the first of five Collins projects in Norfolk, including an innovative mixed-use development nearby that blends a ground-floor grocery store, a parking garage and condominiums.
With the mall on one side of Granby and the residential developments on the other side, there was what Woolard calls “a pincer movement” that ended in an explosive rebirth of the merchant street.
For Collins, the city's focused master plan and their economic analysis of the demand downtown provided the impetus to invest, says Arthur Collins II, a partner. "The fact that they follow (the plan) is unusual," he adds. "Many of these people have master plans and they don't actually follow them. They're not part of their review process. Here for instance, when a new project comes into this town, Ray Gindroz is reviewing every one of them to make sure they're consistent with that 2010 master plan. That just doesn't happen elsewhere."
In addition to apartments and condominiums downtown, more cultural amenities opened, including a performing arts center and a 1,500-capacity concert venue in 2000. Dozens of restaurants moved into the theater and dining corridor along Granby with another five dining places planned for this year.
Norfolk, which never stopped funding projects in neighborhoods, tripled the budget for neighborhood revitalization in four years from $4.5 million to $14.4 million. The city has run a surplus the last three years. "The downtown is throwing off millions more in cash than it is absorbing and that's helping to pay for school system, public safety and whole range of neighborhood services," says Mayor Fraim.
Now, the city is building connections between downtown and nearby neighborhoods by developing more residential units. It is encouraging mixed-use development of the near-downtown neighborhoods. And it's added a tax abatement plan paying developers 30 percent of any new taxes generated by their projects. In one project, a developer invested $5.2 million, transforming a former department store on Granby Street into retail spaces on the ground floor with 49 apartments above, renting from $1,000 to $1,600 per month. The project, completed last year, is fully leased.
All along Granby Street, once-boarded-up building fronts are alive with the sounds of renovation. And when Cathy Coleman looks out her window she sees Dillard’s Department at the corner of a million-square-foot shopping center, a skyline of office buildings, tourists on their way to the Wisconsin and a parade of visitors heading into restaurants and shops.
Jim Morrison is a Norfolk-based journalist whose work has appeared in Smithsonian, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, This Old House and numerous other magazines.