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  NEW TOWNS
NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2006
 

Influential Neighbor
Nestled into urban blight, a fledgling neighborhood is turning the tide on Chesapeake Bay.

There's a parable about apples taught to Sunday School children in hopes they will stay on the straight and narrow. What happens when one good apple is placed in a box of bad apples? The bad apples taint and spoil the good apple, rather than being improved by it.

In Norfolk, Va., overlooking Chesapeake Bay, a young TND is proving exactly the opposite. Bordered on its west and south edges by the same urban blight that once occupied the land on which it sits, East Beach is quickly becoming a model for complete redevelopment -- and how redevelopment can spread beauty and economic health to less-than-beautiful surroundings.

"It was a big challenge," says D.B. "Bart" Frye, a managing partner with East Beach Company, LLC (EBC), the neighborhood's developer. The 100-acre site didn't look like much the first day he saw it, on a cold, rainy Saturday morning in January 1998. Endless groups of run-of-the mill, four-unit apartment complexes greeted his eyes. Owned by absentee landlords, the units were rife with health and safety issues; city coffers were hemorrhaging $2.5 million annually because of the disproportionate need for public services, says Frye. "It was abject blight, so bad that no one would deliver a pizza there, cabs wouldn't go in there. There were drugs, prostitution, and everything else that often accompanies that kind of environment. The whole gamut of urban ills were present in this one neighborhood."

Plenty of groundwork had been laid by the time Frye laid eyes on the site. Ray Gindroz of Urban Design Associates (UDA) had been involved with the area since 1986, indoctrinating the City Council with the methods and importance of great urban design. A few smaller projects along the Chesapeake Bay beachfront also helped to pave the way for future redevelopment. And for years Norfolk City Council member Randy Wright had fought for annual fund allocations to buy the East Beach site and relocate the residents. In 1995, Norfolk's Redevelopment Housing Authority (RHA) took the money -- all city funds; no county or state money -- and began to do did exactly that, creating a site for redevelopment.

With the land purchased, the RHA made a deal with EBC. The RHA retained ownership of the land and asked that EBC pay market rates for the land, develop it, and give 20 percent of each lot sale back to the RHA. "In the beginning, East Beach was an unknown entity, people didn't know if it would be wildly successful or a huge flop," says East Beach General Manager Rock Bell. "So by giving the RHA 20 percent of the lot sales, we both would benefit from the project doing well. This turned out to be helpful on the political side: The people who are watching you are happy that you're doing well, as opposed to begrudgingly accepting it."

"So if we hit it out of the park, so does the city," adds Frye. "Given today's projections, that will be between 50 and 100 percent of what the city expected to get. We're doing this in phases; each phase requires that we prove we're doing what we said we would. If there's a huge hiccup in the economy and the deal becomes not viable, the city won't have to go through the process of trying to reclaim the land; they'll continue to own it till they transfer it."

But those encouraging projections weren't known back in 2000, when Frye first rolled up his sleeves and got to work. Building on an early ULI study and a subsequent preliminary plan from Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ), Frye rehired DPZ to create a master plan. Armed with a pattern book produced by UDA, Frye had what he needed to get started.

Now, four years after the development team first broke ground, East Beach is demonstrating a commitment to quality that is impressive even by new urbanist standards, a market resiliency that belies the recent downturn in housing starts and sales, and an almost viral beauty that continues to positively affect its surroundings.



East Beach sits on Willoughby Spit, a narrow strip of land bordered by Chesapeake Bay to the north and Pretty Lake -- which is actually an arm of a saltwater bay -- to the south. The neighborhood is composed of three districts, which run in long, east/west bands along the length of the spit.

The northernmost district is the Bay Front District, which runs parallel to Chesapeake Bay and features a series of seven bayfront greens sliced through with walking paths. "Those greens represent a huge amount of revenue that could have been generated there by building private houses," says Frye. "Instead, they're open areas that are being developed for everyone to enjoy."

The architectural mood here is "beachy," says Frye, with a quintessential New England flavor and houses to match. The smells and sounds of the beach are a fixture. The Bayfront Club sits on Chesapeake Bay beach, and offers a pool, a weight/cardio room, and a bayfront room for weddings and gatherings.

The middle and largest district, Pleasant Avenue, is the heart of East Beach. The street will include a mix of large and small homes to provide a depth of character and diversity along its length. Linear parks, which run throughout East Beach, are particularly prevalent in this district, as the urban ambience begins to shift from a carefree, vacation vibe to a more formal setting.

At the southernmost edge of the project, the Pretty Lake District offers immediate access to pleasure boat marinas on Little Creek Inlet, which provides easy passage to Chesapeake Bay. In the Pretty Lake District, the transition to formal urbanism is completed. Because of its location and building types (more multi-family and condo units here), this district is meant to evoke memorable waterfront communities such as Annapolis, Md.; or established cities such as Old Town Alexandria, Va., or Georgetown in Washington, D.C.

East Beach will be finished in seven phases. So far, the first phase is complete and the second phase is nearing completion. The third and fourth are under way simultaneously; the fifth and sixth are about to launch. The seventh phase, which will be a mixed-use development along Shore Drive, currently is in the planning stage.

At build-out, the neighborhood will have 700 homes, possibly more. At press time, roughly 140 single-family and cottage homes were built or under construction; another 40 mixed-use condos (retail on ground floor) also were under construction.



Because of the nature of its site -- East Beach is a complete redevelopment project -- Frye dealt with challenges that simply aren't part of the equation for greenfield neighborhoods. He breaks the primary challenges into three categories: physical, economic and social.

Physical: Unlike many inner-city developments, where the city provides significant infrastructure assistance, or discounted or even free land to achieve a goal, East Beach's developer is paying full market value for the land and putting in all the infrastructure on its nickel. "The physical complication in doing that is you can't put a trencher in the ground and let it run to put in your water, sewer, curb, gutter, sidewalk and lighting, because you don't know what you're going to hit. You also have to demolish most of the infrastructure that's already there: power lines, underground water, sewer and street beds. During a recent meeting, for example, we discovered an old concrete plant on the site, and had to remove foundation remnants."

Economic: The demolition, removal and disposal affects a developer's bottom line. "Plus, we took all the existing streets and turned them into brand-new alleys, then cut in new streets," says Frye. "We worked our roadways around 200-year-old live oaks for a nice effect."

Social: Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim is unapologetic about the city's efforts to build a tax base and a socioeconomic balance, says Frye. Covering 63 square miles of land, "Norfolk already houses an overwhelming amount of affordable housing in the region. It's fully developed, surrounded by undeveloped land. That's quite different from a city with a pocket of blight amongst a higher-income demographic.

"We have ongoing relationships with the city, the RHA, the Planning Commission, adjoining civic leagues, and a host of interested people who live nearby, who regard themselves as urban pioneers in the area. They want to know what's going on, and we tell them. It takes time, diplomacy, generating good will and living up to what you say. It's turning out magnificently for us and the community."

"For the most part, people absolutely love living here," says Bell. "Although some people seem to think that there will be no problems with anything. The fact is, this used to be the worst of the worst slums, which means that we're still surrounded by less than favorable neighborhoods. At a recent meeting, someone was furious that their car had been broken into and their iPod stolen. Just because you live in East Beach doesn't mean your kids aren't going to get cavities. All your cares don't go away."

Still, East Beach's popularity and success speak for themselves. The community won the Tidewater Builder's Association's 2006 Community of the Year award. It hosted the 2005 Coastal Living Idea House and a local Parade of Homes.

In the current housing market, with overall downturns nationally, the neighborhood is a bright spot in southeast Virginia, maintaining a sales and development pace that not every project is enjoying, says Frye. "We're rolling along aggressively, enjoying a preferred position above the more conventional developments surrounding us, particularly in northeastern North Carolina. And in the realtor world, East Beach occupies a special rung on the ladder because of its continued success."

And remember the parable of the apples? Frye reports that the sheer force of success with East Beach is beginning to overcome the remaining blighted areas west and south of the neighborhood. "They are rapidly disappearing because of the impact that East Beach has had on the land values in those areas. A significant amount of tear-downs and small infill redevelopment is happening in those areas. The land values have tripled and quadrupled because of East Beach, even while it was getting under way. I get regular calls from interested parties for advice on purchasing land around East Beach. There's been a flurry of development spawned by the East Beach phenomenon."

As for hard numbers, Frye estimates the East Beach neighborhood will eventually grow into a $450 million development that will generate a tax base of more than $6 million for the city. "And that doesn't factor in the surrounding land values, which have gone up due to the impact of East Beach."

Leave a Legacy In a world of build-it-and-go developers, Frye is a refreshing anomaly. Having spent his adult life in Norfolk, he wants to make a profit, but he also wants to create something that will last beyond his years. "I want to do something good for the community, to leave a legacy that will last," he says. "I believe you only have one chance to develop anything in America, and you'll have few chances, if any, to correct any mistakes.

"What's most pleasing to me is that the folks who live here like living here. It's just that simple: You can build beautiful places, but if you don't have people happy to live there, you haven't accomplished your goal."


SIDEBAR ONE



East Beach is enjoying much success, but not by chance. Its master plan has been coupled with a Builders Guild to ensure the homes that go into the neighborhood are of the highest quality.

"We're not living in a time in history with great construction quality," says Roger Wood, town architect for East Beach. "So the purpose of the Guild is education, to get builders to build historic architecture, get them working together, thinking about and working with architects who do traditional design work really well. It's a cultural change that we're bringing to the area. We want them to think of building in East Beach as an honor."

With the exception of some of the condo and mixed-use buildings, all units in East Beach are being done by the Builders Guild. The Guild currently lists 22 members - all custom builders - and getting those members was a challenge. "To start their training we took everyone to Charleston, Habersham, Newpoint, I'On," says Wood. "We also put them in touch with experienced TND architects and designers, such as Eric Moser, Bill Allison, Jim Strickland, Michael Morrissey, John Reagan and others."

Builders Guild members are expected to adhere to high standards of excellence, recorded in a Guild Manual, which each member receives upon acceptance into the Guild. Everything is under scrutiny, from the quality of their workmanship to the neatness of their job sites and their interaction with East Beach residents. "At the pace we're building, some of the residents inevitably end up living next to construction sites," says Rock Bell, East Beach general manager. "That's an ongoing PR challenge."

Customers are surveyed regularly to determine their satisfaction levels. If builders can't maintain a high level of customer satisfaction, they aren't allowed to build in East Beach, says Wood. "We've eliminated two builders from the original list so far because they weren't performing. We have two more finishing houses right now, and they won't be doing any more."

This dedication to excellence pays off in the architectural palette that East Beach is creating. "Each house is designed specifically for its lot, and there's no repetition," says Bell. "This adds a real richness to the neighborhood."

To further up the design ante, Wood took a page from other TNDs' play books to introduce a Design Professionals Guild for East Beach. "We created it after spending way too many late nights doing design reviews," he says.

"The idea is to hire people who are experienced working with traditional design vocabularies" and offer their plans to the public at a less-than-custom cost. "There's a growing group of TND architects that are familiar with these vocabularies and are making themselves known to us."

"Builders normally spend about $300 on a copyrighted design to build a house. The average price here at East Beach is between $5,000 and $8,000 because they have to go through our design process. If people are able to buy an Eric Moser or John Reagan home for significantly less, even with modifications, it makes the process much less expensive than it would be if we were designing everything from scratch.

"Now the battle is, how do we keep our neighborhood from looking exactly like Habersham or I'On? The next step is trying to localize the architecture."

Wood's efforts are paying the kind of dividends he wants. "Our goal is to sell lots and to have happy people living here," he says. "We see people out walking around, telling us we're doing a great job. And even though we're not immune to the housing slow-down, real estate brokers tell us that we're the leading edge."


SIDEBAR TWO



Size: 100 acres

Designer: Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company

Developer: East Beach Company, LLC (East Beach Renaissance, The Leyland Alliance)

Groundbreaking: 2002

Percent complete: 30%

Population: 200

East Beach Villas (condos): Start at $374,000

Manor condos: $389,000 to $669,000

Cottages: $449,000 to $535,000

Townhomes: $565,000 to $665,000

Single-family: Start in low $600s (avg. is +/-$850,000)

Brownstones: $709,000 to $769,000

Getting there: From downtown Norfolk, take Tidewater Drive north to east on Little Creek Road. Follow Little Creek Road to north on Shore Drive. Follow Shore drive to east on Pleasant Avenue, which takes you into East Beach.

For more information, go to www.eastbeachnorfolk.com, or call 757.333.6650.