Cooperation and transparency will be the two key ingredients for the success of the Downtown Norfolk Development Project (Saint Paul’s Quadrant). The city council was wise to delay the proposal cooperation agreement proposed by the city, and the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority (NRHA). The reason for the delay was to give the public adequate time to express their concerns and hopes for the future developments.
Despite the noise and fears we have read and heard about, the city of Norfolk can organize one of the largest downtown development projects since the construction of the targeted low-income housing projects now slated for demolition, Chrysler Hall, Scope, and Downtown Plaza. If done wisely and correctly over 200 acres of prime downtown land will be ripe for reshaping Norfolk for the next two centuries. Thus far, it is clear, that every segment of the community agrees that the redevelopment of downtown is needed. The challenge before us, as a community, is how will it be done.
First, every citizen, whether directly impacted or those ultimately having to pay the bills of the development, should be welcome to all public meetings. And every comment should be evaluated and seriously considered as we move forward. An attempt to muzzle any group who comes forward to share ideas on the future of the development will be detrimental to the project as a whole.
Secondly, make sure that the people, churches, and businesses directly impacted by this redevelopment project will not become the casualties of the project. In particular, one of the goals of the project is the deconcentration of poverty. This is a noble idea in its self, but it should not be a formula for scattered poverty which will still be a disservice to the whole community.
Simply passing out housing vouchers may work for some, but it will lead to a spread of hardship throughout the city. If that method is used, our schools, neighborhoods, businesses, and institutions will suffer the same woes that the residents of Calvert Square, Tidewater Gardens, & Youngs Terrance are already experiencing.
The city should approach this project with the understanding that inadequate education produces unemployment and poor health care services. Therefore, the city should avoid any actions that will breed any more poverty in Norfolk or surrounding areas.
This is a golden opportunity to train hundreds of residents in the project area who are under employed or unemployed. Any project that fails to allow the residents to benefit economically is not good for the city of Norfolk. The city staff, NRHA staff, elected leaders, religious leaders, civic and community leaders, should all approach these issues with an open mind and a commitment to help the people affected. That means that you should be willing to allow the people to be a part of the entire process.
Those guiding the redevelopment project must continue to be transparent about what is going on, and to work with all segments of the community. This is especially true when the credibility of the city is at an all-time low. Regaining the trust of the community is mandatory for future growth. Secrecy is not the answer. Working with the citizens, the city of Norfolk can develop a plan that every reasonable person can embrace and work to see completed.
Thirdly, yet equally as important, in this listening and planning process, is the inclusion of the financial, business, legal, and professional communities. When the dust of comments and concerns settles, it will be the private sector investors who will be the ones who will put meat on the bones of ideas to make all our dreams a reality. Failure to include these groups will delay and possibly even undermine the success of this once in a lifetime opportunity.
Public dollars will not be enough to make the investment needed to reshape and expand Downtown Norfolk. If done correctly, the infrastructure cost alone could reach into the billions of dollars. State and Federal grants will not get the job done, either. Our best chance for investments in this large-scale redevelopment project is the intentional and transparent inclusion of the private sector. This should not be perceived as a threat to those who do not have the resources to invest. To the contrary, it should be viewed as a partnership between every segment of the community. This should also include the minority private sector community, as well. This is especially true since the city has such a poor track record when it comes to minority inclusion in major development projects.
Fourthly, checkerboard planning (impulsively building individual projects and planning later) will hurt the plan. No development should be allowed in the project area until the plan is completed and adopted by the city. All other developments in the project area should be put on hold. This is not an attempt to destroy the dreams of anyone already interested in the area; Instead it is an effort to fully develop the vision before spot developments begin to pop up. This will allow the city, NRHA, and leaders of every segment of the community to thoroughly assess the needs of the community today and its vision for the future. This will also allow the community the opportunity to do a candid review of our past project’s errors. They will also be able to answer the question, “What did we learn from Ghent, East Beach, Broad Creek, and so on?” Each development brought change and revelation, and both are valuable in moving forward.
Finally, in the meantime, the NRHA and the city should do everything it can to remove the dark cloud of fear and uncertainty over the residents of the targeted low-income projects and surrounding communities. The city should continue its effort to bring the various segments of the community together to complete the master plan for reshaping the future of Downtown Norfolk. If everyone involved is committed to cooperation and transparency, the downtown redevelopment project will be a blessing to our city.
Reverend Anthony C. Paige is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Lambert’s Point in Norfolk, Va.