Words by Denise Bishop. Image courtesy of Downtown Norfolk Council.
If you’re anything like me, you don’t remember all of the specifics about when things occurred in Spring 2020. Starting in mid-March, I just have a vague, blurred sense that everything started getting cancelled, one by one, until every demographic felt the effects of the coronavirus pandemic spread across the region: office workers, parents & teachers, concert-goers, sports fans. One minute I was working from home, and the next I was heading back to the office as Phase 1 began.
During that time, however- especially the last week of Phase Zero- one group was working around the clock to help reopen one of our cities: OpenNorfolk. As their website states, “OpenNorfolk is a boots-on-the-ground community assistance program through the City of Norfolk that is helping local businesses open safely under The Governor’s Phase 1-3 Guidelines.”
Working with their partners (the City of Norfolk, WPA Architects, Yard & Company, and Team Better Block) and the Downtown Norfolk Council, OpenNorfolk began with an incredible push to assist local restaurants reopen for seating (outdoor only, at the time). City streets and parking spaces were turned into patio seating; free parking was added on Boush Street downtown to offset the loss of metered parking on Granby and to encourage visitors to dine at Norfolk restaurants; and a blanket Letter of Permit was sent to Virginia ABC law enforcement so these new outdoor seating areas could be approved to serve alcohol. This was no small feat: the idea for OpenNorfolk was pitched and approved on May 11. Phase 1 began on May 15.
Groups of volunteers built patios and parklets, set up bike racks and other partitions to mark outdoor dining areas, stenciled sidewalks (“Do your part keep 6 feet apart”, reads one) and distributed laminated signage to Norfolk restaurants. I should note that, while I heard about this initiative through the Downtown Norfolk Council (I’m a member of the Downtown100 and receive their newsletters), this was city-wide. Ocean View, Riverview, 35th Street, and Ghent were included in the initial push.
In late August, I attended a virtual forum through the Downtown100 with Mel Price from WPA Architects and Norfolk City Planner George Homewood. I was very excited to learn more about OpenNorfolk and the hard work it took to get up and running and how big the project has become. There are now 20,000 square feet of parklets throughout the city. The OpenNorfolk restaurant guide took 60 pages of government rules and turned it into just 3. And with the help of three hired interns from the community and almost $100,000 in volunteer services, three new Neighborhood Spots were envisioned and built in St. Paul’s (partnered with Teens with a Purpose), Five Points (including a Food Bank pantry and pop-up local vendors), and Broad Creek (including mobile haircuts, yoga, and virtual learning workshops with Norfolk Public Schools).
I really enjoyed hearing Price and Homewood talk about the use of rapid implementation in this process. Rather than spend months and years researching and doing market studies, they had to get it out there first and then see what worked. It gave them the opportunity to experiment, to see what could be made permanent. And it also allowed them to be more confident in their successes.
In early September, I attended the Downtown Norfolk Council’s first (virtual) monthly Member Briefing since the pandemic struck in March. The guest speaker was Norfolk’s new City Manager, Dr. Larry H. “Chip” Filer, II. By launching in the smart manner it did that sent a message of safety, Filer said, OpenNorfolk had a clear positive effect on restaurants and retail. The public response has been quite positive, residents and stakeholders are asking if parts of the initiative can become permanent. In addition, Norfolk’s hotel occupancy was strong, leading the 25 largest markets for 8 straight weeks. (More recently, Norfolk/Virginia Beach was the only one of the top 25 markets to exceed 60% occupancy for Labor Day weekend, according to https://www.hotelmanagement.net/operate/str-u-s-occupancy-up-over-labor-day-weekend.) For an urban area, our COVID-19 numbers have been low, and it helps that the city and downtown employers have made a commitment to telework options in order to keep people safe.
Later in the briefing, Filer shared his “Post-COVID-19 Call to Action” plan for Norfolk, a plan with four central points on which to focus once we are able to shift our focus away from COVID-19.
First, we need to create a family-friendly city. With telework on the rise, workers and their families can live anywhere and telework in New York or San Francisco. We want them to live here. In order to attract them, we will need to look into housing development and redevelopment (Is it all multifamily? Is it a mix? Is it single family but urban-feeling?). We will also need to increase walkability, bikeability, and yes even scooter-ability across the entire city, not only downtown. And finally, in order to attract families, we have to provide quality schools.
Second, he would like to create a culture of local business and land ownership across diverse industries. This would involve training and mentoring local business owners across a wide range of industries such as retail, food service, tech, and family/day care as well as training, mentoring, and funding for residents interested in land acquisition and development.
His third focus is to enhance Norfolk’s status as a university town. He referenced Campus 757, which is a talent development initiative of the Hampton Roads Workforce Council. Norfolk would need to further embrace its role in the “town and gown” university campus/partner city relationship it has with NSU, ODU, VWU, and TCC. This focus would also include an increase in offerings of arts, culture, and lifelong learning. “I don’t think we’re Boston,” Filer said, “but we can be great.”
Finally, he posits, Norfolk should focus on enhancing its status as an arts and culture hub. We should increase public-sponsored art across the city and invest in and enhance our arts facilities. We should work to attract an arts and culture workforce, the “creative class.”
Filer’s Post-COVID Call to Action is lofty and lengthy, it will not come to fruition without years of planning and hard work, but I’m glad he shared them with us. He seemed so passionate about how much potential Norfolk has to be successful on the other side of the pandemic. It was refreshing to join him dreaming far into the future instead of dreading tomorrow’s COVID numbers.
The next Downtown Norfolk Council (virtual) Member Briefing will be Wednesday, October 7 at 8:30am and will focus on returning to work during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Member Briefing is a benefit of Downtown Norfolk Council membership. However, in light of these novel times, the October Member Briefing will be open to non-members at no charge.” You can RSVP here to attend.
Do you have any great ideas to help Norfolk continue to open smoothly? As we transition into autumn, and subsequently winter, what do you want to see added, grown or stopped? Let them know here.
Are you under the age of 40 and live or work in Downtown Norfolk? You could be eligible to join the Downtown100! Visit their website for more information and scroll down for the Membership Application link.
Looking for a specific organization mentioned? Downtown Norfolk Council: https://www.downtownnorfolk.org/ OpenNorfolk: https://www.opennorfolk.com/ City of Norfolk: https://www.norfolk.gov/ WPA: https://wparch.com/ YARD & Company: https://www.buildwithyard.com/ Team Better Block: https://teambetterblock.com/ OpenNorfok’s photo gallery: https://www.opennorfolk.com/photogallery