Pharrell urges Norfolk to speed up Military Circle development
'Gatekeepers' delaying Wellness Circle project, he says
During a news conference before his three-day Mighty Dream forum kicked off Tuesday, music superstar Pharrell Williams said he is waiting for Norfolk to officially approve his development team’s Wellness Circle project at Military Circle Mall, noting, “I’ve been told many times that we won it. … You have to ask the city. The ball’s in their court.”
Reached Tuesday through a city spokesperson, Norfolk city manager Larry “Chip” Filer confirmed that they are currently working with the Wellness Circle team.
“I can confirm that the city is in discussions with Wellness Circle regarding the exciting redevelopment of the Military Circle mall site,” he said. “The parties are currently negotiating deal terms so we may bring a world-class arena, affordable housing and more to the site. We are making good progress and I want to thank the individuals on the Wellness team for their steadfast commitment to the project. I look forward to finishing these initial discussions and moving on to the completion of the traffic analysis, economic impact and other studies needed to bring the project to life.”
Pharrell added that the project, which would include an arena and flagship Yellowhab school, as well as residential and retail components, does not have a set timeline, although he said he’s excited to move forward.
“There’s a couple of gatekeepers that are not necessarily happy about that, so they make trouble and kick up dust and do the things that they do,” Williams said. Though he did not name any specific people, Williams and Virginia Beach hotel developer Bruce Thompson, CEO of Gold Key | PHR, had a public spat in October 2021 after Thompson denied Williams the use of the Cavalier’s iconic front lawn for an 800-person party where controversial comedian Dave Chappelle would have performed. Thompson is part of a competing group that also submitted a proposal for the redevelopment of Military Circle Mall.
Reached Tuesday, Thompson said that he heard that Williams’ team was in negotiations with the city, adding, that Williams’ “proposal is very ambitious, and if they could pull it off, it would be great for Norfolk. We stand ready, willing and able to step in with an expansive, unique and economically viable development for sustainability and diversity if he is unable to find a pathway to bring his vision to reality.”
During his Tuesday news conference, Williams also joked about the “generic” developments that have characterized the region and called on city officials to move forward with the Military Circle redevelopment. “Over and over again … knockoff restaurants and generic brands. We deserve more. We are on the middle of the Eastern Seaboard. We can’t keep leaving it to five [or] six people with not the best taste. Sorry, I mean, am I wrong? No. I’m saying it with love. Open it up, guys. Open it up. This [development] should have been moving a long time ago.”
Norfolk’s EDA purchased the 75-acre property for $11 million and the nearby DoubleTree Hotel property for $2.4 million.
The Wellness Circle proposal includes 1 million square feet of office space, a 200-room hotel, 1,100 new housing units and a 15,000-seat arena. The project’s other developers include Virginia Beach-based Venture Realty Group and California arena management company Oak View Group, both of which are also co-developing the Atlantic Park surf park with Williams at Virginia Beach’s Oceanfront.
Two other development teams, including groups connected with Thompson and Pro Football Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith of Dallas Cowboys fame, submitted competing proposals for the project. The city returned $100,000 deposits made by each of the three developers in June, citing the amount of time it has taken the city to choose a developer, according to The Virginian-Pilot.
Stay tuned for Virginia Business’ coverage of Mighty Dream, taking place through Nov. 3 in Norfolk.