Residents say Norfolk kept them in dark about site
Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA), 2014-02-21
Feb. 21--NORFOLK -- Meadowbrook is a serene neighborhood off Hampton Boulevard a little south of the Navy base, where the average home value exceeds $500,000.
In 2009, residents learned that the school in their neighborhood would be closed.
They sent a letter via civic league President Kim Himstreet to officials, including the planning director and Mayor Paul Fraim, saying they wanted to be involved in deciding what would happen to the site. The mayor wrote back saying their involvement would be sought.
Now the city has proposals from three developers hoping to build houses, apartments or condominiums. And neighbors -- close to 200 of whom packed a meeting Wednesday -- say this is the first chance they've had to weigh in on any of it.
The civic league objects to all of the plans, saying the development is too dense and fails to preserve enough park space.
Himstreet questioned why city officials would essentially set up a fight between the neighbors and the developers, who were just doing their jobs by responding to a city request for proposals.
"I don't see how the city thought it would turn out any other way," she said. "It's almost like (the developers) have been set up to fail."
What caused the conflict?
As the school sat empty for the past several years, active neighbors kept watch. They reported broken windows and graffiti. The 4-1/2-acre site includes an athletic field, basketball courts and a playground -- space that neighbors use as an unofficial dog park.
John Domena, the secretary of the civic league, noted that the city's own master plan says that because Norfolk is built out, upgrading existing parks is "essential" and everyone in the city should have a park within a half-mile of home.
Neighbors knew the school building would need to go, but they didn't want a dense development in its place. One neighbor thought it would be nice to just make the space a community garden.
But gardens don't bring in money. And Norfolk is keen to get untaxed property back on the tax rolls.
On Aug. 19, the city issued a request for proposals for Meadowbrook and the sites of three other closed schools -- Ballentine, J.E.B. Stuart and Tucker. The request didn't specify what kind of development the city wanted -- it encouraged flexibility and creativity.
Neighbors were not informed of the request, and one of them began investigating after finding out about it.
Himstreet said she talked to two assistant city managers: Ron Williams Jr. and Darrell Hill, who is no longer with the city. She said the neighbors wanted input because they didn't want to be put in the position of facing a bad development they'd need to fight.
She said she was asked not to contact the developers. When the deadline passed, she said she again asked for details and was told to wait.
She contacted the developers anyway, and they shared their plans and seemed surprised that neighbors were concerned, Himstreet said.
In November, City Manager Marcus Jones told the City Council: "We are pleased at what we're seeing initially from these responses."
The neighborhood, however, was not.
"It turned out to be the worst possible scenario," Himstreet said. "There's a big gap between these proposals and what we as a community are willing to accept."
She said they'd be willing to accept fewer than 10 single-family homes, a park and the possibility of also putting the local fire station on the site. The least dense of the three plans calls for 22 single-family homes.
"We understand how special this neighborhood is," Councilman Barclay Winn said at Wednesday's meeting. "We're going to get it right -- with your help."
Himstreet said she asked last week whether she could speak at the meeting -- which was hosted by the city -- and was told no.
In an interview, Williams, one of the assistant city managers, who has now been charged with managing the projects, said the situation is unusual -- the city has never had to find a new use for four closed schools at once. The City Council directed staff to find a way to get the sites on the tax rolls and generate revenue. Norfolk has little space left to build new homes, so this was a chance to build something nice that military retirees or young families could purchase.
The city followed standard procedure by not revealing details of the proposals, Williams said.
Jones and his staff "put the cart before the horse," City Councilman Andy Protogyrou said.
Now the city can move forward on one of the plans, choose a developer who could modify a plan to suit the neighborhood's wishes, or start over, Williams said.
"We don't have all the information we need to make a decision right now," he said.
The city has posted video to Norfolk.gov of the three developers making their pitches and is asking for written input.
As far as the other three school sites, no one submitted any plans for Tucker, at 2300 E. Berkley Ave. At the Stuart site, 435 Virginia Ave., Luna Development Services submitted a plan for apartments, and The Landmark Group submitted a plan for apartments for the elderly.
City officials are planning a meeting for neighbors around the Stuart school but haven't set a date.
Luna Development submitted a proposal for apartments and townhomes or single-family homes on the Ballentine site. That
proposal is still being analyzed, Williams said.
Fraim said the city's process is the same as it has always been but said there's no rush.
"People can be absolutely certain we are going to listen to the many voices that we hear in Meadowbrook," he said.
Patrick Wilson, 757-222-3893, email@example.com
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