Urban revival

Award-winning East Beach has exceeded expectations

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Print this page by Elizabeth Cooper

On a cold, rainy February Saturday 11 years ago, Bart Frye toured a rundown section of Norfolk’s East Ocean View neighborhood.  City Councilman Randy Wright had asked Frye, the CEO of real estate company Frye Properties, to lead the way in turning the 100-acre tract along the Chesapeake Bay into an upscale community.

“It looked awful. It was the worst slums in Tidewater,” Frye recalls of his first impression of the area, which had ramshackle apartments, overgrown yards and a high crime rate. “You had to look past that to see the best beach on the Chesapeake Bay.”

Spurred by Norfolk’s commitment to urban renewal, Frye envisioned the shabby area as a tree-lined neighborhood with architecturally controlled homes, restaurants, shops and offices in the tradition of Southeastern seaboard coastal villages. Frye Properties, along with the Larrymore Organization and Abiouness, Cross and Bradshaw Inc., formed the East Beach Co.  It joined forces with the city and the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority to build a $500 million development. Within four years, the dilapidated neighborhood was transformed into East Beach, a mixed-use bayfront community accented by beaches on the north and pleasure-boat marinas on the south.

Today, East Beach is one of Norfolk’s most fashionable and sought-after neighborhoods with 300 residences and plans for 400 additional houses and condominium units. A 20-minute drive from downtown Norfolk, its residents include city officials, state representatives, local business leaders and military officers.

Crime has dropped significantly; indeed, Frye says that the community is one of the safest in the region. Sustainable Land Development International named it one of the top five sustainable land developments in the country, and Coastal Living magazine chose East Beach as the location for its “Ultimate Beach House” in 2005 and 2011. To top it off, the Congress for New Urbanism selected East Beach for its 2011 Charter Award, the organization’s top honor given to projects exemplifying the highest standards of master planning and implementation.

New urbanism ascribes to the view that suburban sprawl does not produce longstanding, high-quality developments. “People began thinking about what made communities in the old days good,” Frye says. “They wanted to correct the problems of urban sprawl, reduce dependency on automobiles and add walkable retail.” 

In fact, Frye is adamant that cars do not become part of East Beach’s landscape. Garages are built behind the houses so garage doors will not open onto the streets. “This is a pedestrian-oriented community,” he says. “The idea is that people communicate with each other. Porches are designed so people can talk across their porches and visit with each other. It’s a nice, warm, friendly environment — not just a bunch of cars rolling by.” Golf carts, however, are legal on East Beach roadways, with residents frequently using them as their preferred mode of transportation to the community’s Bayfront Club.

The community has far exceeded Frey’s expectations as well as those of city officials. “We have the highest prices per square foot in southern Virginia,” Frye notes. “Whoever expected an average home price of over $700,000?”

East Beach’s revival is a testimony to the city’s vision of urban redevelopment and its willingness to set aside $4 million to buy and demolish the derelict properties, Frye says. “It was very green to recycle an already crumbling area as opposed to letting it decay further.” He adds that when East Beach is built out, the community will be a $6 million tax base for the city.

It has also delivered a much-needed shot in the arm to the city’s urban renewal efforts. “It’s exceeded our expectations both economically and socially,” says Bob Batcher, Norfolk’s communications director. “There were multiple acres of rundown, derelict buildings that nobody wanted to go through. Now the enthusiasm you see there is a sense of community.”

Sydney Nolan remembers riding past those rundown properties when she and her family took their boat out at a nearby marina. Nonetheless, Nolan and her husband, Richard, knew the land along the bay would one day be profitable. “We watched it for years and knew it was an amazing piece of land,” she says. “That kind of land to build on doesn’t exist in Hampton Roads. The more we heard about the neighborhood, the more we knew we wanted to be here.”

The Nolans, who were among the first to move into East Beach, have enjoyed watching the community take shape. “People from all sorts of life have bought into the idea of this little community by the bay,” Sydney Nolan says. “Not a day goes by that I don’t feel fortunate to be here.”

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