Expanding East on the Elizabeth River Trail

by | Jan 26, 2022

Photo by @ana.matopoeia

On a brisk and windy day in early December, the Elizabeth River Trail Master Planning Committee set out on their bicycles from Harbor Park, heading east. Their mission: explore potential pathways for the eastward extension of the Elizabeth River Trail (ERT). Veteran and novice cyclists glided and wobbled through Norfolk State University’s campus to Chesterfield Heights and Grandy Village, up through Ingleside, down Virginia Beach Boulevard, and to JANAF pausing to admire views of the Elizabeth River along the way. After looping through Poplar Hall Park and riding the Tide from Military Highway to Ballentine Broad Creek Station, they crossed the pedestrian bridge over 264, careened down a steep hill on a narrow path, and made it back to Harbor Park in one piece.


So began the initial planning phase of the ERT’s eastward extension. The existing ERT stretches ten miles from Terminal Boulevard at the north end to Norfolk State University (NSU) at the southeast end. The goal is to add ten more miles to the ERT, starting at NSU and terminating at the Military Highway Tide station. From there, Trail users will have the option of riding the Tide to the Newtown Road station, where the ERT will eventually meet up with the Virginia Beach Trail (in progress). The long-term vision is to follow the old Norfolk Southern right-of-way all the way to the Oceanfront. But for now, the focus is on the next 10 miles in Norfolk. 


The Elizabeth River Trail Foundation (ERTF) wants the Trail to connect, and reflect, all of Norfolk as a resource that everyone can use and enjoy. Their approach moving forward will be based on recommendations from the Urban Land Institute’s Advisory Services Program, with whom they consulted last fall. The main challenges that the ERTF sought to address were Trail maintenance, coordination with the city, coastal resilience, and the disparities between the socioeconomic characteristics of Norfolk’s general population and those of Trail users and beneficiaries. “At this point, we think it’s better to extend the Trail to reach as many residents as possible, rather than trying to make the existing Trail perfect,” said Mel Price, Master Planning Committee Chair, and Kindra Greene, ERT Executive Director. 


The first step is to update the Memorandum of Understanding between the ERTF and the City of Norfolk and establish which entity is responsible for what, including maintenance. It may come as a surprise (or maybe not, for anyone who has ridden the brain-rattling section of Trail by the pine trees in Chelsea) that the ERT does not have a maintenance budget. The Trail receives funds through donations and grants, which tend to be targeted towards specific projects (get your name on the plaque!), or objectives like active recreation or improving community health. Maintenance just isn’t sexy enough to attract the big bucks; however, the ERTF hopes to receive $500,000 of ARPA funds from the city to address long-overdue repairs to the Trail. Additionally, a future alignment map and a Trail ordinance are in the works, which will help streamline and codify the process. 


Readers may wonder about the compatibility of a waterfront Trail with sea-level rise. In keeping with the ERT’s mission to provide multiple community benefits, coastal resilience is near the top of the list. Strength comes in many forms, including social connectivity. A primary goal of the ERT is building connections throughout the city and linking communities together. Initial projects of the expansion will emphasize new and expanded Trail connectivity, as the primary benefit of the Trail is its continuity. Design-wise, Trail sections are organized into bridges, elevated shorelines, or sponges. “Bridges” are exactly what they sound like. Elevated shorelines and areas atop vegetated berms will allow access while protecting properties further inland. Like the greenspace and permeable pavers at the new Water Street Park, sponge sections will absorb stormwater and intercept tidal flooding.


As the planning of the eastern extension progresses, the ERTF invites community members to take an active role in determining how their neighborhood interacts with the Trail. Residents’ input is essential and desired. The ERTF is committed to making the Trail an inclusive community asset and is establishing a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. They are also seeking community partnerships with houses of worship, schools, and minority-owned businesses. The next big project on the Trail is the NSU Trailhead at Brambleton and Park Avenue. It’s slated to begin in early spring and be completed by Summer 2023 and will feature a pump track, benches, and other amenities. The NSU trailhead will tie together both of the city’s universities and be the gateway to East Norfolk. To get involved with the ERT, you can sign up here for newsletters and volunteer events or email them at hello@elizabethrivertrail.org.  


Catie Sauer

Ghent, NFK

Catie was born in Norfolk and as an adult has lived here for two years and change. She has a master's in Environmental Planning and Design from the University of Georgia. She likes hiking, playing trivia, being a flaneuse, pinball, memes, and growing vegetables. 

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