May 11, 2017

Editorial: With Waterside District, Norfolk bets on its waterfront again

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Editorial: With Waterside District, Norfolk bets on its waterfront again

Norfolk City Officials gambled nearly four decades ago when they plowed millions of taxpayer dollars into a public-private venture then known as “The Waterside.”

Not all such projects pay off, but this one resulted in huge dividends for the city and the region.

At the time, much of the city’s waterfront was a dirt parking lot. Norfolk officials, including then-Mayor Vince Thomas, knew that accentuating the Elizabeth River overlook was a risk worth taking.

The city partnered with private developer James Rouse to build a $13 million, 78,000-square-foot festival marketplace designed after Baltimore’s incredibly successful Harborplace. Waterside, which drew more than 100,000 people when it opened June 1, 1983, had 122 shops and restaurants.

Waterside combined with adjacent Town Point Park, a public green space also on the waterfront, to became one of the region’s most celebrated gathering places. It sparked a dramatic rebirth in downtown Norfolk that has ebbed and flowed, but continues today.

The synergy created there helped Granby Street restaurants flourish. Residential and office towers followed, as did MacArthur Center.

This weekend, the second incarnation of the facility, known as the Waterside District, formally opens its doors. A soft opening held this past weekend had some hiccups but offered a generally encouraging start as folks flocked to see the reimagined entertainment and dining space.

Thousands appeared to enjoy the new offerings, including The Harbor Club, Guy Fieri’s Smokehouse and Blue Moon Taphouse. Saturday afternoon, crowds filled the building to capacity.

The 1980s architecture so familiar in the old Waterside is largely gone. Developer Cordish Cos. of Baltimore gutted the facility, and it has an urban industrial look befitting modern tastes. Cordish’s $40 million investment shows.

Combined with development of The Main, a Hilton hotel, the Waterside District has brought much-needed new life to downtown’s southern end — although city taxpayers rightly worry about the cost of it all.

Taxpayers are on the hook for $103 million of the $170 million it cost to build The Main. While the result was splendid, the bottom line caused Kevin Murphy, head of the Downtown Civic League, to exclaim that the deal was so generous that it made city officials look like “amateurs.”

The agreement with Cordish was also generous: The company signed a 50-year lease, with two 15-year options, for $1 per year. Cordish also will receive 70 percent of the tax revenue generated on site, up to $32 million, over 20 years.

That’s a lot, but the city ran a $3.3 million deficit at Waterside in 2010 alone. Cordish is now responsible for its upkeep and maintenance for at least the next 50 years. And a site former Mayor Paul Fraim once called the most valuable piece of real estate in Hampton Roads will be utilized productively once again.

The city’s stewardship of Waterside was often flawed. After MacArthur Center opened and pulled shoppers away, city officials struggled to figure out a new niche for what should be a destination for residents and tourists alike.

The city took far too long to determine that Waterside needed to go back into private hands. Then negotiations with Cordish dragged out for nearly two years. The final product, however, appears to be a splendid addition to the region.

Officials hope the same will be true of The Icon at City Walk, a $90 million conversion of the 24-story Bank of America building into apartments. The Icon will add more than 500 residents to downtown’s growing population.

Cordish recognized the demand for housing downtown when it proposed building a 25-story apartment tower adjacent to Waterside. The city rejected that proposal, as it should have, saying that any new development would require renegotiating the original deal. The dispute nearly derailed the project. Perhaps, in time, the idea could be revisited.

None of this would have been possible without the foresight and courage Norfolk officials displayed long ago in transforming a dirt parking lot into an iconic development.