“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”
– Abraham Lincoln
I lived in Norfolk, Virginia approximately 10 years. It’s apart of the Hampton Roads (HR) region that comprises 16 different cities and counties with almost 1,700,000 residents. You’d think a region with a population that large would have strong growth prospects, producing thought leaders at a rapid pace and is a place where young professionals could grow and develop – quite the opposite is true. HR is home to several institutions of higher education and has a relatively recession proof economy given the presence of the largest naval base in the world. More recently the industry has become diverse away from government services as investments pour into the newly built ports in Portsmouth. What’s really interesting about this area is that not many have ever heard of “Hampton Roads, America’s First Region“, have you? Therein lies the problem.
Tunnels and Bridges to Nowhere
The region has a plethora of natural assets with water almost everywhere you look; on the contrary they too have their drawbacks and one of them – their separation. Locals call it the HRBT but some commuters call it hell and if you’ve ever visited HR during inclimate weather, an accident or rush hour, you’ve probably experienced the back ups at the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel. You won’t hear much about the transportation woes from this side of the world. Though the region’s issues are very real, they often pale in comparison to their northern neighbor, Washington, DC who ranked forth in a recent Intrix report for having the worst congestion in the country. Hampton Roads was ranked 33rd. I noticed in the report that HR’s ranking didn’t change and represents the overall climate of region.
Hampton Roads is divided into two sections – South Hampton Roads (SHR) and the Peninsula. If you were a transplant, as I was, you’d think they were two foreign countries they way the were regarded in conversation. I lived in Norfolk (SHR) and commuted to Yorktown (Peninsula) for two years. When I told people that the expression on their faces suggested I’d told them I’d seen the Lochness Monster. I was a resident of Downtown Norfolk for several years and fell into the group-think trap that many do. I felt Downtown was “mine and not theirs” instead of a place to be shared among it’s city and region. Some 22,000 people worked downtown but only 15% or so, actually lived there. So you have a large group of people commuting into the city from neighboring cities.
Bridges and tunnels throughout Hampton Roads allow for better connectivity between the cities or at least in theory. Residents of the Peninsula rarely went to the SHR and residents of SHR only went through the Peninsula heading to Richmond, VA or DC. It’s almost as if there is a brood of snakes in the middle of these two areas that prevent them from intelligent dialogue about the region’s challenges. “We have different issues than the Peninsula” and vice versa. Serving on the Executive Committee of the ULI Hampton Roads, I saw the lack of motivation to engage leadership from the Peninsula as it was almost entirely South Hampton Roads businesses.
Not only does the Peninsula and South Hampton Roads compete, you have very real competition among individual cities. Norfolk vs. Virginia Beach; Virginia Beach vs. Chesapeake; Newport News vs. Hampton; Williamsburg vs. Yorktown and on and on. It’s a bit ridiculous in my opinion. On a visit to Boston, from Charlestown, I looked over the Charles River and saw beautiful Downtown Boston. If you’re Downtown Norfolk and look across the Elizabeth River, you’re looking at Portsmouth, VA with a completely different government and conflicting visions. To compete with Downtown Norfolk, developers built Virginia Beach Town Center in the middle of suburbia to create a “downtown Virginia Beach”. At last count there are at least 5 “convention centers” with each city trying to attract their own clientele. What sense does that make if you can fit all of those convention centers into one like the Fort Worth Convention Center.
Comparison of Smart-Growth Versus Sprawl: Development for Virginia Beach, Virginia
|Sprawl Development||Smart Growth||Benefits of Smart Growth|
|Growth in number of dwelling units: 70,000||70,000||none|
|Farm land developed: 12,691 acres||7,559 acres||Consumes 45% less land|
|Annual fiscal impacts on general fund: Negative $19,067,709||Positive $5,121,592||Costs 127% less|
|Total infrastructure costs $613,681,094||$338,270,087||Infrastructure costs 45% less|
|Total vehicle miles traveled per day: 1,711,124||600,635||Citizens drive 65% less, air pollution cut by 50%|
I’ve often became frustrated when I asked people what direction Hampton Roads was going in? I was met with the “Things won’t change until somebody dies” – interesting thought. Between Virginia Beach’s ‘No Cursing’ sign and Portsmouth’s Mayor woes, I feel the region’s leadership has missed the point somehow. Many efforts have been made to bring awareness to the issue of Regionalism but some are simply not interested in anything interrupting the status quo. Plagued by a flight of young professionals, stagnant job growth and a lack of diversity in housing has not helped the region break from it’s “slow” title. Norfolk ranked in the bottom ten on Richard Florida’s Creative Index even though Norfolk is seen as the ‘urban’ core of the region and has a downtown that’s revived over the last decade. The region (and state) has been unsuccessful at attracting a professional sports franchise. Before you had the Washington Nationals, they considered at Hampton Roads and before you had the New Orleans Hornets, again, they considered Hampton Roads. Even when it comes to professional sports, there is a lack of vision. Will the leadership wait to build a facility to accommodate a franchise or wait for another opportunity to bid on a team without the property facilities and infrastructure already in place?
Norfolk has the first 7 miles of light rail under construction now. Notice I said Norfolk, not Hampton Roads – I guess it’s a start. Because Virginia Beach can’t be out done, they are now meeting to discuss bringing light rail to their city. This is truly a moment to sigh. Do you think a stronger argument could have been made to build a light rail from to Norfolk to the Virginia Beach oceanfront versus a line to Virginia Beach’s city boundary? Before the line was under construction, I said that I could retire in HR if I could get from Williamsburg to Virginia Beach without getting in a car. At this rate, 7 miles every few years or so, I may be able to make that goal by 62, we’ll see.
Organizations like the Hampton Roads Partnership are doing an incredible job at promoting regionalism and feel they truly understand the issues. The city of Denver serves as a good model to follow. With a regional population of approximately 2,500,000, Denver has been consistently ranked as one of America’s most livable cities. The region’s mayors made a goal of being the America’s most healthy “community”. Not until regions stop the infighting, little progress will made. I’m convinced that the true competition is not our city next door or another region in our part of country (Atlanta, Charlotte etc). Our competition is in China, India and other developing economies. Why is that so hard to grasp for many people? Tom Friedman speaks to that in his book The World is Flat. I’m cautiously optimistic.
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