Norfolk creating a downtown arts district

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Print this page by Veronica Garabelli

Rome didn’t get built in a day. The same can be said for the area surrounding Granby Street north of Brambleton Avenue in Norfolk, which recently was designated the Downtown Arts and Design District.

“People think this happened quickly,” says Frank Duke, Norfolk’s director of planning, about the arts district. “It has been a long time and a lot of work and engagement by a lot of people.”

A huge boost for the plan came last April when the city and Team Better Block, a Dallas-based urban planning firm, hosted Better Block, a two-day event attended by several thousand people. It showed what an arts district would look like in the underutilized area that was once home to automobile shops.

“Better Block, I think, answered a lot of the concerns … some people had about this area as an arts district,” says Duke, adding that some people who previously had opposed the arts district warmed up to the idea after the event.

The arts district was proposed by Hannah Serrano and Jesse Scaccia, editors and publishers of AltDaily, an alternative news organization in Hampton Roads. Serrano and Scaccia now are working to establish a nonprofit group to promote the district and serve as a liaison between different parties involved in its creation.

Another victory was passage in May of a zoning ordinance that officially designated the Downtown Arts and Design District and allowed property uses needed for an arts district. Art galleries and art studios, for example, which were previously prohibited in the area, are now allowed. 

The next step, Duke says, is more interest from the private sector, some of which the city already has begun to see. “The city can remove regulatory barriers, but unless there is private-sector interest in doing something, things don’t happen,” Duke says. The city also is working on streetscaping and managing stormwater in the area, which is prone to flooding.   

Alchemy NFK is one organization that has become involved in the project. The artist cooperative opened in a shop in the arts district after a successful run during the Better Block event. The co-op has scheduled a grand opening this month. “We hope to be the anchor spot for the arts, kind of kickstart everything,” says Careyann Weinberg, one of four founders of the organization.

Alchemy NFK will have spaces available for artists to rent, as well as a “gym membership” model where artists pay to use Alchemy NFK’s space and equipment. Weinberg says Alchemy NFK would also like to start a business incubator for artists. “We want this to be a way people can use to jumpstart their business and, hopefully, take it outside [the] door and start their own little business across the street.”

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