This week, the Norfolk City Planning Commission will decide whether to approve or deny a new, mixed-use apartment complex at the corner of East Brambleton and St. Paul’s Boulevard, across the street from the Scope arena. The city council will have the final say on approval, but this week’s planning commission hearing is one of the first steps in the development process. In Downtown Norfolk, specific zoning requirements dictate where new buildings can go on a property, how much “active space” is required on the ground floor, building transparency levels, etc. Developers can request deviations from these requirements, which are called waivers, and must gain approval from the city council. The applicant is Bruce Smith Enterprises, and they have asked for several waivers from Norfolk’s minimum requirements for new downtown projects.
Overall, I think this development would be a net benefit to downtown, but without substantial changes to the proposal, I would never call it a “great” project. Below you can read about this proposal’s good, bad, and ugly parts.
The most overwhelmingly positive thing about this development is that it will no longer be a parking lot. According to the staff report the planning department posted online, there will be 286 apartments, with a small percentage of units set aside for lower-income residents (more on that later). While parking is not a requirement for apartments downtown, they are providing an interior parking garage that will be available to the residents and the churches next door, which is solid.
Another good thing about this potential development is the improvement in stormwater management and resilience in the area. Without getting too far in the weeds, the state requires all new developments to meet a minimum standard regarding stormwater management. Given that the site is currently just an old parking lot, it’s likely not designed to manage any stormwater–this means it goes straight into the city system, leading to some of the nuisance floodings we’re so accustomed to seeing. If constructed, the complex will have to provide stormwater management that meets the current requirements, which means (hopefully) reduced flooding.
Sorry Hokie fans, but the name of the development – 78 at St. Paul’s – is a bit confusing. The address is 698 St. Paul’s Boulevard, but the name of the building is 78? That’s going to be a nightmare to explain to people, right? I understand that was Bruce Smith’s number when he played ball, and shoutout to a local legend investing in his city, but the name has got to go.
I mentioned earlier in the article that the city plans to set aside some units for lower-income residents. The only issue with that, in my opinion, is they’re not providing more. They’re required to set aside 10% of the units as affordable housing, so that’s 28 apartments, which is good but not good enough. Given the development’s proximity to the public housing amid demolishment in Tidewater Gardens, Young’s Terrace, and Calvert Square, it would be in the developer’s good faith to think of the neighbors that have already been or will be displaced by the controversial St. Pauls Transformation Project. We are experiencing a severe housing crisis in Norfolk, and thousands of people are on the waitlist for affordable housing. Developers would be wise to provide more affordable units than the minimum requirements, particularly downtown. The city should focus on providing housing for the most vulnerable rather than assisting in creating conditions for significant gentrification in Norfolk.
Zoning downtown requires that new developments provide “active space” on 65% of the ground floor; this is a standard urban planning practice – it’s vital in creating a vibrant downtown area where you can live, work, and play without driving a car. According to the Zoning Ordinance, an active space could be commercial, display windows, offices, museums, civic uses, educational facilities, and daycare facilities. 65% of the ground floor is not asking much, but the developer is requesting a waiver, so they would only need to provide 20% of the ground floor for active uses. 20%! That is so pathetically low it’s almost laughable. According to the staff report and application, the developer is blaming the current state of the market on why they don’t want to meet the minimum requirements, which is absurd on its face. Yes, the market sucks ~right now~ but the average life cycle of an apartment building is 60 years. Why on earth would the City Council and Planning Commission approve such a steep decrease based on current market conditions when they’re supposed to be thinking decades down the line? Just because a developer doesn’t feel like doing the work of finding a suitable tenant does not mean the city should waive its requirements. The developer could easily provide flexible spaces on the ground floor to adapt over time throughout the ebbs and flows of the market; it just requires a minuscule amount of thought and creativity. I’m sure the neighborhood would love a bodega, or office space, or a restaurant, or a bike shop, or a grocery store, or a café, or an art gallery, or a barber shop, or a tattoo parlor, or a doctor’s office, or a pharmacy, or a bar, or a daycare, or a gym, or a bookstore, or a dry cleaner. See? I just came up with enough uses to fill the entire building in 30 seconds, but “the market,” right?
The planning commission will be voting on this project on Thursday, June 23rd, with the city council voting on the final approval sometime in July. If you feel like voicing your opinion, you should contact the staff planner for this project, Susan Pollock, at email@example.com. Better yet, reach out to the planning commission directly (Amanda.Lloyd@norfolk.gov, Earl.Fraley@norfolk.gov, Matthew.Hales@norfolk.gov, Kim.Sudderth@norfolk.gov, Ramona.Austin@norfolk.gov, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com). The two city councilors representing this area are Paul Riddick (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Danica Royster (email@example.com).
Hank Morrison moved to Norfolk in 2018 after completing his Master’s in Urban and Environmental Planning at UVA. He enjoys running on the ERT, Oregon Ducks football, and mid-century architecture. Hank lives in Ghent with his girlfriend and her blind dog, who is also named Paul.