Editors Note. Our writers reviewed the publicly available executive summaries for each proposal. The team behind The Well responded and indicated that their full proposal is now available. Some scoring featured here may not be reflective of the most recent information available. As more full proposals and presentations come to light, we hope to grade the projects again in a new post.
Opened in 1970, Military Circle Mall was once a thriving area that represented peak commercial development, a hive of business and social activity. Fifty years later, its glory days behind it, the Mall now is only 54% occupied, haunting the highway interchange alongside a 200-room hotel that has been vacant for over a decade. These Ghosts of an Economy Past are about to get a new life as the Norfolk Economic Development Authority (NEDA) selects the winning proposal that will shape its redevelopment and revitalize a neglected section of Norfolk.
Transform the 89-acre Military Circle Mall area into “a holistic health and wellness community with a walkable street grid” that will “create a sense of community and a central location to spend time with coworkers and peers and provide employees and residents with more opportunities for physical activity.”
The three finalist proposals all challenged the design of mixed-use communities with housing, offices, retail, greenspace, and walking paths. Here’s a quick rundown of their unique amenities:
- The Crossroads – A 15,000 seat arena, “The Circle” Walking Path, educational partnerships with Norfolk’s Department of Public Health, a “sports tourism” complex, two hotels, and a cultural center in partnership with the American Legion Attucks Post #5
- The Well – An 8,000 performing arts amphitheater, a hotel, “Sentara Wellness Village,” solar power, a nine-acre lake with an island in the center and kayaking, a Recreation Center, and the Norfolk State University Innovation Center
- Wellness Circle – A 16,000-seat arena for concerts and events, a hotel, a YELLOW School, a medical learning facility/clinic, and the “Wellness Loop.”
NEDA will evaluate the proposals according to several criteria: Compatibility with Transit-Oriented Development, Walkability and Active Transport, Mix of Uses, Housing, Employment, Public Spaces and Partnerships, Resilience and Sustainability, Equity, and Financials. Possible scores are a -1 (inadequate, missed the mark), a 0 (good, meets expectations), or a 1 (very good, nailed it).
Compatibility with Transit-Oriented Development (TOD)
Considering Hampton Roads Transit’s plan to extend Norfolk’s light rail, the proposals will be evaluated for compatibility with TOD principles. TODs are dense and walkable communities built adjacent to a light rail or other mass transit. Their urban form can reduce the need to drive by up to 85 percent, with significant energy consumption and emissions savings. Proposals will be graded according to their density (in dwelling units per acre, or DUA) and their connectivity to transit. Planned developments can sometimes be insular and disconnected from the surrounding neighborhoods, so proposals will also be graded according to how well they tie into the areas surrounding Military Circle.
|DUA*||Connectivity to Transit||Parking Spaces||Relation to Surroundings||Score|
4 bus routes,
one (future) Tide stop
|7,200||Two parks on one side and the Arena on the other make a permeable boundary. Nice!||1|
|The Well||8||No mention of transit?!||No mention, but parking will be on the development’s perimeter||Looks inward, like its “back” is to the rest of town||-1|
|Wellness Circle||13||Future light rail stop shown on bubble diagram||4,500||Looks good||1|
The Crossroads: This proposal also has a development plan for The Dump site on the other side of Military Highway. It will be “The District,” with residential, hotel, and retail spaces. Kudos for thinking outside of the development boundary. This design has a lot of parking for a TOD, but since Military Circle doesn’t yet connect to light rail, it’s reasonable to be cautious about reducing parking supply.
The Well: Transit was not addressed in this proposal, a pretty glaring oversight as it was specified in the RFQ.
Wellness Circle: More explicit connections to transit would have been nice. The only mention is that “the plan proposes integration of future light rail development while providing convenient automobile access and pedestrian circulation.” A higher housing density and reduced parking spaces are positives.
“Walkability” is more than just a visually appealing street. It’s a planning concept focused on creating built environments where people can safely access essential services and entertainment, on foot, within 30 minutes or less. Walkable neighborhoods reduce the need for vehicles and are safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Altogether, they encourage active transportation, moderate physical activity, and a safer and more vibrant community. Military Circle is only half a mile across at its widest point. Once redeveloped, there will be great things to see and do, with improved walkability. In this case, let’s compare the paths themselves. Do they have any special features?
|Pedestrian Paths||Other active transport||Score|
|The Crossroads||“The former ring road will be converted into a unique pedestrian greenway of intertwining paths and exercise equipment hubs.”||Bike and scooter lanes along ring road; bike share station||1|
|The Well||“Residential villages connected by the community’s 3+ miles of interconnected walking and biking trails”||Kayaks, I guess?||1|
|Wellness Circle||“The Wellness Circle reclaims the ubiquitous suburban Ring Road for its original intent: to bring people together in a civic space where walking is encouraged, and design is inspiring.”||No mention of bikes, but presumably they’re allowed||1|
A mix of uses is critical for a lively urban environment because there must be somewhere to walk to – otherwise, you’re doing laps. The use-based or Euclidean zoning that shaped most of the country’s postwar development (aided by the automobile) emphasizes the separation of uses – residences in one zone, businesses in another, and industrial in another. “Mixed-use development” has been a hot real-estate term in recent years, but it’s a throwback to when homes and businesses were in close proximity. This category has two criteria. First, does the mix provide development residents with an appropriate diversity of services and amenities? Second, will the combination attract residents of other areas?
|Amenities for MC Residents||Signature Amenities||Score|
|The Crossroads||Parks, Circle Green, Grocery store, School||Arena, Sports Complex, Cultural Center||0|
|The Well||Lake, trails, recreation opportunities, grocery store||Lake, Amphitheater, Rec Center||1|
|Wellness Circle||Trident Park, Wellness Loop, “high design”||Arena, YMCA, YELLOW School||1|
The Crossroads: The housing, school, and grocery store are scheduled for the last construction phase, so there will not be any residents to serve for many years. It’s also important to note that the Cultural Center is still in the works, and the acquisition is not final, so this amenity isn’t definite. Some citizens may be suspicious of big stadium projects. They often turn out to be boondoggles that fail to deliver the promised revenue.
The Well: The lake has an island in the middle “where boating and kayaking activities can occur.” I’m going to assume they’ll have kayaks available to rent, which could increase water-recreation access for the development’s residents and visitors. The amphitheater is meant for performing arts events but could equally be a gathering space for different community happenings when no formal events are on the schedule.
Wellness Circle: My previous statement about stadiums still stands, but if anyone can keep an arena filled with big acts, it’s Pharrell.
This one is straightforward. The city will judge proposals on the number, price points, and type of housing units provided. In light of the ongoing housing affordability crisis, any redevelopment should consider Norfolk’s median household income ($53,062, as compared to the national median of $67,521) and high poverty rate (18%). Therefore, proposals will be judged on their ratio of market rate, affordable/workforce, and low-income housing options.
|Housing Units, Market Rate||Housing Units, Low Income||Score|
The Crossroads – The target demographic for market-rate housing earns “between $40K to $65K annually.” One hundred units are reserved for affordable housing, and if they’re built using Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), the Crossroads Partnership will keep them as low-income housing for at least 30 years (the minimum is 15 years).
The Well: The proposal includes “864 units of market, workforce, and senior housing” but doesn’t include a breakdown.
Wellness Circle: 708 units of market-rate multifamily, 288 units of LIHTC housing, and 147 for-sale townhomes are proposed. I think the inclusion of townhomes is a creative idea, and I hope that it will help previously-excluded people build generational wealth. But they’re market rate, so that’s probably wishful thinking.
Proposals will be graded on the number and quality of permanent jobs they will create. Construction jobs are good, but they have an expiration date. Hopefully, most of the remaining jobs offer a living wage, benefits, and opportunities for advancement. All proposals include significant integration with Sentara Healthcare and Optima Insurance per the RFQ. But what else are they offering?
|Total Jobs||Permanent Jobs||Main Employer(s)||Score|
|The Crossroads||3,100||1,800||Sentara/Optima, The Arena, two Hotels, School of Public Health||0|
|The Well||2,200||1,800||Sentara, Norfolk State, Hotel||1|
|Wellness Circle||No specifics||No specifics||Sentara/Optima, Arena, Hotel, School, YMCA||0|
The Crossroads – Just a guess, but jobs at the two hotels, the arena, and the sports complex are probably closer to minimum wage than not. There is no way to tell from the proposal. Also, at this point, the School of Public Health is an idea, and not a done deal.
The Well: The Norfolk State partnership brings an on-site Business Center for small business start-ups and enhances the NSU Tourism and Hospitality Management program. Furthermore, NSU has a direct ownership interest in this project. I love this idea as it creates a tangible “education-to-employment” path.
Wellness Circle: One can assume that this proposal has a similar amount of permanent jobs as the other two. Several employers are in healthcare and youth development, emphasizing the community focus on wellness and growth. It’s very “put your money where your mouth is.” But public service-oriented jobs aren’t known for their high salaries. On the other hand, the pay for careers like teaching and caregiving is laughably, insultingly low, so maybe they will finally be paid what they’re worth in this scenario.
Public Spaces and Partnerships
Amenities are those things in a community or building that are nice to have – golf courses, swimming pools, central heating and cooling, granite countertops, etc. Proposals will be graded on the social and environmental impact of their amenities. Most mixed-use developments and “Town Centers” are retail-focused. Sure, they are pretty and lively, and you can chill there for a couple of hours, but there is an obvious expectation that you’ll be spending money while doing so. A community, especially a wellness community, is where you should be allowed to just be – to exist, sit, rest, meet, chat, think, observe – for free. Parks and greenspace are great places for such activities. These essential amenities will be weighted heavily in this evaluation with their myriad health benefits.
“Community Partnerships” looks at what local organizations or institutions the developers partner with, such as government departments, nonprofit groups, or universities.
|Public Spaces||Greenspace Acreage||Partnerships||Score|
|The Crossroads||Parks, Circle Green, Cultural Center (?)||9*||American Legion Attucks Post #5**, Norfolk Dept. of Public Health**, Tenant Relocation Program||0|
|The Well||Parks, trails, woods, 9-acre active lake, amphitheater (?)||Over 40 acres of open space, wooded park with over 1,000 trees||Norfolk State University||1|
|Wellness Circle||Wellness Loop, Trident Park, “ “ample community recreation space, community farming”||10*||YMCA, YELLOW School,||1|
*Not specified in proposal; approximated using Google Earth.
(?) Unsure how public these will really be
** Not for sure yet
The Crossroads: Partnering with the Norfolk Department of Public Health for a school, and the American Legion Attucks Post #5 for a cultural center, would be a unique combination. Also, The Crossroads Partnership team will work with the current tenants and the Military Circle Mall retail management company to undertake a Tenant Relocation Plan study to “understand the best relocation destination for existing tenants” and fund their relocations.
The Well: “Norfolk State University will be a key partner at the Well” with a satellite campus that includes the expansion of the NSU Innovation Center, which will provide an on-site center for the acceleration of small business start-ups for the underserved. Also, NSU will take an ownership interest in the new hotel, which will serve as a “working laboratory” for NSU’s Tourism and Hospitality program. This idea combines education, creativity, and business and provides high visibility for students’ ideas. Also, the hotel will be a place of learning for Tourism and Hospitality students to hone their skills in a real-world setting and make new professional connections.
Wellness Circle: “Two-thirds of the project will be dedicated to public uses, including publicly owned facilities, green space, and infrastructure.” Wellness Circle will be “an inclusive place of belonging rooted in community needs where the city’s diversity is welcome, and abundant opportunities for education, play, youth development, and personal growth. This commitment is realized through our partnership with the YMCA, provisions for ample community recreation space, community farming, affordable housing, and jobs.”
It’s well-established that the average global temperature is increasing, sea-level rise is accelerating, and Norfolk is sinking. Proposals should be forward-thinking in their designs, incorporate green infrastructure and renewable energy, and minimize emissions.
|Green Infrastructure||Resource Use||Score|
|The Crossroads||Approximately 9 acres of greenspace, Green Circle, and green roofs*||Not specified||0|
|The Well||Reduction of impervious surface from 89% to 42%, provides over 40 acres of open space, including over 1,000 trees, and a 9-acre lake||An energy plan utilizing on- and off-site solar power, combined with energy-efficient buildings, aims for net-zero energy use||-1|
|Wellness Circle||Approximately 10 acres of greenspace, Wellness Loop, and green roofs*||Targeting 85% reduction in water use and a 40% reduction in energy use||1|
*Green roofs are shown on the renderings, but not specifically mentioned in text
All proposals will create more greenspace than is presently on-site (because there is none). Greenspace mitigates the urban heat island effect. Another critical benefit of greenspace is that it reduces stormwater runoff by slowing it down, filtering it, and absorbing it. This both reduces the likelihood of flooding and improves water quality.
The Crossroads: This proposal has the least greenspace of the three and looks like there are many hardscapes. The parks for The Crossroads are on the periphery, and while that is more inviting for the surrounding communities, it’s less of a focal point for residents of The Crossroads.
The Well: I badly want to love this and give it a “1”. But I can’t get over the lake from a resilience standpoint. And yes, this takes it from a “1” to a “-1”. Water seeks the lowest point. Military Circle is on some of the highest ground in Norfolk and is not a logical place for an artificial lake. The city should reserve this high ground for housing and other infrastructure rather than recreational amenities. Trust, there will be plenty of water around us soon enough.
Wellness Circle: I don’t have much to add here. Ten acres of greenspace is suitable. I like that the main park is in the center, as it creates a focal point and prominent community gathering place. I hope they hit their reduction targets for water and energy use.
One can define equity as just and fair inclusion in a society where all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential. Housing, employment, and amenities – and access to them – are equity elements. Still, it gets its own category here to see how the proposals specifically acknowledge equity or inclusion as a goal. This category is pass/fail.
|Equity Goal Statement||Score|
|The Crossroads||“Open the door to all people of Norfolk by focusing on the full spectrum of affordability and inclusivity…Establish platforms for social engagement and community empowerment that come through deep partnerships….Offer job creation opportunities as well as wealth and equity creation”||0|
|The Well||“A diverse and inclusive project that includes benefits for the entire community and provides equity for the underserved, minorities and people of all incomes, ages and abilities.”||1|
|Wellness Circle||“We are intending to build an inclusive place of belonging rooted in community needs where the diversity of the city is welcome and opportunities for education, play, youth development, and personal growth are abundant.”||1|
Congrats, everyone, you passed. But setting goals is the easy part; the real test will be in the execution. These proposals will take years to complete, and the “results” may not be known for several more. Measures of success could be things like higher incomes and educational attainment, improved health, or increased feelings of wellbeing and social connectedness. These metrics would have to be controlled for in some way. Perhaps, for example, by housing type, so as not to be distorted by many wealthy people moving in and agreeing that life is excellent.
The Crossroads: They didn’t have any specific statement that stood out to me, so I cobbled several phrases from various parts of the proposal. I believe the intent is here, even if the phrases don’t clearly articulate it. The responses mentioned “Equity” (the social kind) twice in the proposal.
The Well: The Well’s plan emphasizes “social responsibility for the future that not only embraces diversity and inclusion, health and wellness, environmental sustainability, education, and affordable housing but creates metrics by which the project can be evaluated for success.” Unfortunately, these metrics were not listed. Also, this is the only proposal to explicitly address the Social Determinants of Health, which is very cool.
Wellness Circle – “The Wellness Circle objectives include tangible health, economic, social, and financial outcomes…we are working to facilitate uplifting intersections among residents, students, visitors, and employees. For example, if a student sees a healthcare professional at work, or on their way to work, they are more likely to see healthcare as an attainable profession.” Awesome. Wellness Circle also addresses social determinants of health, though it doesn’t say so outright. I appreciate the circular and systemic way they handle them, as a circle of life, sharing knowledge and inspiration in a growth-centered environment. Speaking of, “Wellness Circle will evaluate the performance of these outcomes using metrics determined during the development process.” But still no word on what those metrics will be.
By The Numbers
The proposals also include nuts-and-bolts financials for those unimpressed by lofty ideals and slick sales pitches. To say that municipal budgets have been stretched thin the last few years is an understatement of pandemic proportions, and even if there were money to throw at developers, it would be hard to stomach.
Norfolk has seen the dangers of the growth Ponzi scheme and isn’t rolling over with extravagant tax breaks and giveaways to attract development dollars. The RFQ states explicitly that the redevelopment should:
- maximize private investment, optimize public investment, and minimize public risk
- increase tax revenue for the city from an area that has been producing diminishing returns
Therefore, the proposals will be graded on the amount of private investment brought to the table (more is better), the amount of public investment needed (less is better), and the anticipated tax revenue generated by the completed project.
|Funding Provided||City Investment Needed||Projected Tax Revenue||Phasing and Duration||Score|
|The Crossroads||“Our Financial plan is to privately finance 100% of the entire project.”||$0||$1.4 Billion. BILLION.||
completion in 2029 (housing last)
|The Well||$633 Million||$0||Provides $17.7 million in annual tax revenues and approximately $643 million through 2056 for the City of Norfolk||Ability to begin construction within 12 months of a signed Development Agreement; (housing first)||1|
|Wellness Circle||$853 Million||$332 Million (presumably as a TID)||Not specified||Phased seven to eight-year buildout||0|
All three proposals make use of Tax Increment Financing mechanisms, or TIFs. These walk a fine line between “helpful financial instrument” and “footsoldier of the growth Ponzi scheme.”
The Crossroads: Over a billion dollars in revenue is wild. “Through an innovative structure, we are able to combine Opportunity Zone benefits with tax-exempt bonds.” Might this be the first beneficial use of Opportunity Zone funds? The proposal references “Volume Two, Financial Plan,” but I couldn’t find it.
The Well: The proposal references a Schedule Section and a Finance Section, which I could not find.
Wellness Circle: If I’m reading this correctly, that $332 million are TIF funds, in which case, that second column should be “$0” since the other proposals are doing the same. Surprisingly, an analysis didn’t include the anticipated revenue.
And the Winner Is …
Congratulations, Wellness Circle! Hope you’re “Happy”.
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.