On Friday, the City of Norfolk announced that it would be starting construction to transform a former industrial site on Water Street into a public green space filled with native plants. The location is a key connector between downtown and the Harbor Park area along the Elizabeth River Trail. As the area prepares for the Head Waters resort and casino and the city courts additional development for the area, the redevelopment of this rough and overgrown site is not altogether surprising.
Upon the release of the news, however, a fervent chorus of voices flooded the comment sections. Among the broken concrete and decaying warehouse, the local skate community had found a home. The location was removed enough from business corridors to avoid scrutiny, had a smooth surface, and included some basic urban features to skate. The waterfront views didn’t hurt either. Over time it became a skate community focal point. According to Cardinal Skate Shop owner Jason Hawkes, “it’s a place to meet your peers, and to congregate, learn from each other, and make lifelong friends and memories.” The community banded together to take care of the space as well, often hauling out bags of trash to keep it tidy.
News that this area will become a formal park was met with animosity by those who had found an appreciation for the unloved spot. They feel the project’s design will not be welcoming to skaters. Despite the fact that the area was never a city-operated or sanctioned skate park, many skaters hoped that their use of the site might inspire a more skate-friendly replacement.
The City of Norfolk indicated that the funding making this project possible comes from the Virginia Brownfields Restoration and Economic Redevelopment Assistance Fund (VEDP). The fund requires explicit environmental remediation and places strict requirements for future use. A skate park was not an eligible use of funds under these rules. Since 2019, the project plan has been in its developmental stage. The city has sought input from the Downtown Norfolk Civic League, Architectural Review Board, Elizabeth River Trail Foundation, among other community organizations. In the summer of 2019, the city even hosted an open house at City Hall where anyone could attend and provide feedback.
That outreach never entirely made its way to the skaters. We spoke to Cardinal Skate Shop and several skaters who said they never received any outreach about the development. Part of the reason seems to be timing. As the city was presenting and doing outreach in 2019, the spot hadn’t yet become the population destination that it is today. Most of that growth happened through 2020 as Covid-19 shut formal skate parks, including Northside Park off of Tidewater Drive. Word spread through social media that people weren’t being kicked out, and the “scooter kids” hadn’t yet found the spot. Nowadays, you can even catch parents dropping off a vanload of skaters at what would look to be a deserted industrial location to the uninitiated. All that hype came after the city had collected the majority of its community input, however.
We asked the skate community what they would want to see at this location had their feedback been sought on the redevelopment. Those interviewed were surprisingly humble, requesting basic amenities such as shade, lights, trash cans, a place to sit, and maybe bathrooms.
“We are not trying to get a skate park out of this; we are just hoping that since we showed the potential of the area to the entire city, that we could get a few obstacles of our choosing incorporated into the layout and be allowed to skate freely without worrying about being kicked out,” Jason explained.
R.I.P. Water Street skate spot. You’ll be missed.