Norfolk: Jacksonville's Twin?

July 24, 2007 21 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

An economy based off shipbuilding and the Navy. A riverfront downtown, decimated by urban renewal in an Atlantic Coast city, in stiff competition with it's southside and beach suburbs. Sounds like Jacksonville, however it's Norfolk, Virginia. Despite the economic similarities it's downtown revitalization tactics have been acclaimed in the economic development world to be a true success. Should Jacksonville take notice?


Norfolk Population 2006: 229,112 (City); 1,649,457 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1705)

Jacksonville Pop. 2006: 790,689 (City); 1,277,997 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1832)

City population 1950: Jacksonville (204,517); Norfolk (213,513)

Metro Population: 1,645,015 (2005)

Incorporation: 1705


Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News MSA other significant cities

Virginia Beach = 435,619
Chesapeake = 220,560
Newport News = 178,281
Hampton = 145,017
Portsmouth = 101,377
Suffolk = 81,071


Closer than you think!

Norfolk/Jacksonville comparison...

Historical industry: Shipping and port activities = shipping and port activities

Fortune 500 Railroad: Norfolk Southern = CSX

Navy: Naval Station Norfolk = Mayport Naval Station

Atlantic city with major river downtown: Chesapeake Bay/Elizabeth River = St. Johns River

Largest suburban area: Virginia Beach = Southside/Beaches

Rouse Marketplace: Waterside Festival Marketplace = Jacksonville Landing

Urban Renewal: East Main Street District = La Villa

Downtown residential district: Freemason = Cathedral District

Ports: Second busiest cargo port on East Coast = Second busiest automobile port on East Coast

Across the river: Portsmouth = Southbank

Beltway: Hampton Roads Beltway (I-64, I-264, I-464 & I-664) = I-295 & SR 9A

Lifestyle Center: Virginia Beach Town Center = St. Johns Town Center

Expressway to Beaches: I-264 = JTB


Downtown Norfolk's rise back to the top

During downtown's heyday, Granby Street, the main commercial corridor, was lined with numerous department stores, hotels and theaters. However, like many others, the core fell on hard times due to the increasing popularity of the suburbs during the 1960's. 

Beginning in the 1970's, city leaders turned their eyes toward revitalization.  Granby was converted into a pedestrian mall to compete with the suburban enclosed malls and the industrial waterfront was purged of its decaying wharfs.  Like Jacksonville, the city of Norfolk also took advantage of urban renewal programs and demolished broad swaths of downtowns prominent buildings, including the old City Market, Norfolk Terminal Railroad Station and the Monticello Hotel.  These techniques did not always achieve the intended results.  For example, the elimination of vehicular access on Granby effectively killed the remaining retail in that corridor and the Landing-like Rouse marketplace struggled to live up to its expectations.

Strange enough, Norfolk's downtown renaissance came from the very thing that lead to its demise... an enclosed shopping mall.  In the mid 1990's, city leaders allocated $100 million dollars in public funds for the creation of an upscale regional mall on 17 acres of land cleared during the urban renewal years decades earlier.  With the mall in hand and under construction, the city also invested funds on infrastructure improvements throughout the core, in the form of increased lighting, repaving streets and opening Granby back up to vehicular traffic.

With the promise of thousands of new shoppers coming to visit the mall, nearby property owners throughout downtown reinvested in their properties, making them ready for new retail and residential uses catering to the traffic generated from the shopping destination.

Today, the dreary downtown of the 1980's and early 1990's has evolved into one of the most vibrant cores in the Southeastern United States.


Downtown Aerial

Purple - MacArthur Center Mall

Yellow - Granby corridor

Red - Freemason Neighborhood

Green - Waterfront

Light Blue - Office Core

Blue line - proposed light rail line.


Downtown Photo Tour

A view of the Norfolk skyline from across the industrial Elizabeth River.


MacArthur Center Mall 

Opening its doors in 1999, this mall has been the major catalyst in Downtown Norfolk's revitalization.  It instantly became a draw for the entire region by introducing retailers and dining operations that up until that time, had no prescene in the metropolitan area.


The three story enclosed mall is anchored by Dillard's, Nordstrom and Regal Cinemas 18.  There is space for a future anchor that is currently used as open park space.



Despite being enclosed, the mall's exterior is lined with uses that embrace and energize the surrounding urban environment around it.  Unlike suburban centers, all parking is consolidated into large parking garage structures, funded by the city to attract the mall developer to downtown.  Thus, there are no surface parking lots separating it from downtown's streets and urban fabric.


Granby Street

To compete with suburban shopping malls, city leaders converted Granby Street into a pedestrian only mall in the 1970s.  However, the closing of the street to automobile traffic actually helped speed the demise of the street as a viable commercial destination.  Today, after being re-opened to automobile traffic, Granby has now become an entertainment and dining oriented corridor lined with bars, theaters, restaurants and clubs one block away from the MacArthur Center Mall.



The Waterfront

During Norfolk's early years, the waterfront was once dominated by wharfs and heavy industry.  Like Jacksonville, they were torn down and land was filled on the Elizabeth River to make way for new uses.

The centerpiece of the downtown waterfront is Tower Point Park.  This waterfront space, bounded by several destinations, has become a popular place and staging ground for festivals and special events.


The layout is pretty simple.  There's nothing extravagant about it, just grass and asphalt sidewalks, yet it's well used due to the diverse mix of uses that surround it.


Nauticus, The National Maritime Center, is constructed on a former pier adjacent to Town Point Park.  Immediately next to the popular museum is the permanently docked USS Wisconsin, which is open for public tours.  A cruise ship terminal is the newest attraction on this side of Tower Point Park.


Norfolk has invested heavily in directional signage, both for auto and pedestrian use.  The inclusion of little features like this help create a pleasant environment for visitors. 



Waterside Festival Marketplace and the office core lie on the other sides of Tower Point Park.  These structures have taken the place of obsolete warehouses and wharves that once lined the downtown waterfront.


Norfolk's Waterside Festival Marketplace is the Jacksonville Landing's older Rouse sibling.  Like the Landing, it also struggled to keep first tier retail tenants.  Its fortune changed when a plan was implemented to fill the entire struggling retail center with restaurants, bars and clubs.  Today, it's a major waterfront destination and southern anchor for Tower Point Park.


The parking strategy appears to be different between our cities.  While our garages tend to overcharge the short term visitors, Norfolk's rates are simply based off the amount of time you spend in a space.  While it costs more to park your car over a 24 hour period in certain areas, the short term rates are fairly cheap for those visiting the retail shops lining the streets.


The Elizabeth and St. John's Rivers have a lot in common.  Both were major reasons for the creation of the early shipbuilding cities bordering them.  However, while the majority of Jacksonville's industrial uses have moved upstream, the site of major shipbuilding companies are still present across from Downtown Norfolk along the Elizabeth River.


Freemason District

West Freemason was originally developed during the late 18th through early-20th centuries.  After a large portion of this neighborhood was razed as a part of a failed urban renewal scheme, preservationists successfully had the remaining portion labeled as an official historic district.  Freemason's proximity to downtown Norfolk is eerily similar to the proximity of the Cathedral District, which has also seen large parts of its historic fabric eliminated.



Old Dominion University 

This university is located a few miles north of Downtown Norfolk.  Since its establishment in 1930, enrollment has grown to over 21,600 students.  The university is also the home of American Maglev's demonstration system. Although this prototype shuffles students between three stations at 40 mph, American Maglev hopes to make 300 mph systems after gaining operational experience with this project.

New student dormitory complexes designed to fit in the city's street grid.  Student parking is located in the center of the blocks and shielded from public view corridors by the dorm buildings, which also feature limited retail spaces.


Historic Ghent 

Ghent is Norfolk's inner city version of Jacksonville's Springfield, lying just north of downtown and the Freemason District.  However, it has been completely revitalized, serving as an example of what our Springfield will look like at some point in the future.


The Suburbs

While we think our downtown has some stiff competition with the First Coast's suburbs, its nothing compared to what downtown Norfolk faces.  Although Norfolk has historically been the central core city, the Hampton Roads region has seven similar sized cities, none of which appear to be willing to submit to being simply a suburb of Norfolk.


Portsmouth - (2006 population: 101,377)

Located on the southbank of the Elizabeth River, Portsmouth would be Jacksonville's version of the Southbank and San Marco, in terms of proximity to the Northbank waterfront. 

Incorporated in 1752, Portsmouth sits directly opposite Norfolk, on the Elizabeth River.  Recently a Virginia state legislator proposed a plan that would merge Portsmouth and Norfolk into one central core city.  If successful, the two would then become a unified core city with a population of 330,489. 


The City of Portsmouth makes it clear to downtown visitors that on street parking is free.


Water taxis, from Norfolk's Waterside, connect downtown Norfolk with Portsmouth core commercial district, known as Old Town.  While linear in layout, its relation to downtown Norfolk is closely similar to San Marco Square and Hendricks Avenue's relationship with downtown Jacksonville.



Newport News - (2006 population: 178,281)

Newport News is the metro's largest city north of the Chesapeake Bay.  For comparison's sake, locally it would represent the rapidly growing areas north of the Trout River in Jacksonville.  The image above is a new town center project called City Center at Oyster Point.  City Center is a 52 acre high density mixed use development that contains 500 residences, 230,000 sq. ft. of retail/restaurant space, 1 million sq. ft. of class A office space and a Marriott Hotel.


Virginia Beach - (2006 population: 435,619)

You can consider Virginia Beach, Norfolk's Southside on steroids.  Incorporated in 1906, this "suburb" is now nearly twice the size of Norfolk in population, after it consolidated with Princess Anne County in 1963.  Many may remember that the main employer in Virginia Beach is NAS Oceana, a naval master jet base that was nearly relocated to Cecil Field last year.


While our downtown deals with the St. John's Town Center, downtown Norfolk has to deal with the new Virginia Beach Town Center.  Since the city never really had its own downtown, they decided to create one in the middle of suburbia.


Started in 2001, the Virginia Beach Town Center now boasts several highrises amongst its restaurants and retail shops.  Now Virginia Beach has its own legitimate skyline. 


Despite the successful new urbanist town center, Virginia Beach is still known for its... beach.


The main corridor along the oceanfront is lined for blocks with restaurants, hotels, and retail outlets.


If there's one thing we can take from Virginia Beach, it's smart meters.


Sometimes we give ourselves the short end of the stick.  This illustration shows how large the Northbank core was and can still one day be.  The area outlined in red is the entire size of Downtown Norfolk and the adjacent Freemason District.  If Norfolk can cram a diverse mix of uses into its downtown core, there's no reason to think we can't do better.


Despite the stiff competition and the elimination of a significant portion of urban fabric, Downtown Norfolk still found its way back to the light within a 10 to 15 year period.  Given the similar qualities and development patterns of our cities, Downtown Norfolk serves as an instruction manual for what techniques could be done to enhance Downtown Jacksonville in the near and distant future.