Andrew M. Sinclair, Director, Government Affairs
Virginia Port Authority
(Past Government Affairs Director, Hampton Roads REALTORS® Association)
The City of Norfolk has become very proactive and innovative in its approach to planning and redevelopment. Among the approaches it has taken include working with Team Better Block, not only to develop Better Block events in key areas of the city but also to test zoning changes and accelerate their implementation.
Norfolk held its first Better Block in April 2013 along Granby Street, north of Brambleton, in the proposed Arts District. The Hampton Roads REALTORS® Association (HRRA) is a 3,000 member association of primarily residential agents, so HRRA watched the event with interest but had no direct interaction.
However, over the summer of 2013, the City of Norfolk began to turn its attention to the 35th Street commercial district which is nestled between the two residential neighborhoods of Park Place and Colonial Place. This event was the perfect blend of underutilized commercial space, ideal for Better Block, and residential neighborhoods which fit the Association’s strength. It also provided a platform to engage HRRA’s small commercial alliance and grow its membership within the Association.
HRRA applied for and received a Smart Growth grant from NAR to support the planning, execution, and follow up reporting associated with the 35th Street Better Block which was held in November 2013. HRRA’s involvement served to further the Association’s credibility in land use planning but also shaped the event as well.
35th Street used to be a vibrant cultural scene for Norfolk, but it had lost its luster as development first moved to the suburbs and then as redevelopment focused on Norfolk’s downtown business district.
Given the 35th Street corridor’s location between two historic neighborhoods, it was important to integrate the residential aspect into the Better Block. HRRA was able to accomplish that by including a pop-up real estate office among the businesses in the vacant store front. The real estate office served as a hub for simultaneous Open Houses for properties within walking distance which coincided with the Better Block.
Other pop-up businesses included arts venues, jewelry and crafts stores, restaurants and cafes, and a bike shop. Overall 19 business participated with a total of 10 hours of operation and generated more than $13,000 in revenue.
The 35th Street Better Block also included temporary streetscaping of parklets for seating, mid-block crosswalks, and curb bump-outs. The changes decreased average vehicle speeds along 35th Street from 25 mph to 12 mph, creating a much more bicycle and pedestrian friendly corridor.
The highlight of the weekend was the re-lighting of the Newport Plaza marquee which had been dark for nearly 40 years. Just last month, the city announced that Croaker Spot, a soul food restaurant which had been a Better Block vendor, would be buying the Newport Plaza building to develop a mixed-use facility for both its restaurant and apartments.
Norfolk is planning its third Better Block event for the Five Points area in Norview during November, and HRRA will be participating in that event was well. Better Block has become an excellent venue for the HRRA to partner with the community and city officials to test out concepts, showcase an area, and inspire investment, while confirming REALTORS®' standing as land use experts.
However, as valuable as the expertise is and as important as the resources are which REALTORS® can bring to initiatives like Better Block, the vision must come from within the community. With their vision and buy-in, REALTORS® can provide the necessary support to achieve that vision and drive the long term investment to turn these short term, showcase events into new development.
If you want to see a Better Block in action, and are attending NAR's Annual Conference in New Orleans, you can join the New Orleans Metropolitan Association of REALTORS® on November 7th from 5-9 pm for a great night of music, history, kids’ activities, and great local food, as they work to bring back a corridor that is an integral part of the history of New Orleans. See more information on the Better Block event on 11/7 in NOLA.