Norfolk’s sister cities spruce up their downtowns

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by Elizabeth Cooper

Norfolk isn’t the only Hampton Roads city in the midst of a downtown renaissance.  Portsmouth and Hampton are renovating historic buildings, developing new retail and creating incentives to draw people and businesses downtown. And, like Norfolk, these efforts take full advantage of the cities’ waterfront locations. 

In downtown Portsmouth, a big challenge comes from the age of many buildings. Constructed 60 to 70 years ago, they’re not always conducive to the business and residential needs of today. “We didn’t have to create a downtown,” says Steven L. Lynch, director of economic development. “Downtown was the destination for retail. We’re trying to bring that prominence back to downtown and attract new businesses.” 

To that end, the city plans to redevelop a prime six-acre site into a mix of office space and residential units worth $150 million. The waterfront land currently is home to Holiday Inn Olde Towne Portsmouth, which will be demolished later this year. Construction is expected to begin in 2009 on the first phase: approximately 200 apartments and 12,000 square feet of shops and restaurants. The second phase features an office tower with 130,000 square feet of office space and about 100 condominiums. The final phase includes construction of additional residences and two parking garages with space for 1,364 vehicles. “Right now, everything is on track for that project,” says Lynch.
Much of Portsmouth’s redevelopment has focused on restaurants and antiques and specialty shops, some of which include living space on upper levels. “People are interested in having the ability to live downtown,” adds Lynch. 

Downtown Hampton also is focusing on economic renewal as the city implements a downtown master plan adopted in 2004 and amended in June 2006. Through improved roadways, additional green space and new housing and commercial space, the plan emphasizes the core’s historic past and urban lifestyle.
Like Portsmouth, Hampton’s downtown is mainly composed of specialty shops and unique restaurants. To add to the retail mix, the Downtown Hampton Development Partnership has developed a rent-assistance program to recruit business tenants on the first floor of existing buildings. In addition, there’s a property improvement incentive to assist property owners with façade improvements, renovations, signage and landscaping. “It’s a win-win situation,” says Sherry Spring, director of the DHDP. “We invest with the property owner in improving the building which raises the property value.” 

As long as a retail tenant stays in a building, the partnership’s program will provide property owners with up to $1,000 per year.

Hampton’s downtown also recently gained a new high-end, 144-unit apartment complex, with the construction of The Heritage at Settlers Landing. In addition, developer Raj Randeria is converting the former downtown post office into a 60-room boutique hotel expected to open next year. Old City Hall, another Randeria purchase, will be transformed into a 30-suite extended-stay hotel. And, in February, the city reached a deal with MHI Hospitality Corp. of Williamsburg to sell the former 172-room Radisson Hotel for $7.74 million. MHI Hospitality plans to operate the downtown hotel as a Crowne Plaza.

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