Design of Cities: Norfolk
Norfolk is an independent city in the Commonwealth of Virginia,
considered to be Virginia's second-largest incorporated city, and is also one of
few urban areas in Virginia showing resurgence in population. Norfolk is part of
the larger Hampton Roads region, which is named for the large natural harbor
(also named Hampton Roads) located at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. The city
is bordered to the west by the Elizabeth River and to the north by the
Chesapeake Bay. It also shares land borders with the independent cities of
Chesapeake to its south and Virginia Beach to its east. One of the oldest of the
Seven Cities of Hampton Roads, Norfolk is considered to be the historic, urban,
financial, and cultural center of the region, and has a long maritime and naval
history, both in recent history as well as before the colonization of the New
As early as 9500 B.C., there was evidence that native people inhabited
the site of what is known today as the city of Norfolk, Virginia. The earliest
definite record of an Indian settlement on the land now occupied by Norfolk is
found in the writings of Captain Arthur Barlowe, who, with Captain Philip
Amadas, headed Sir Walter Raleigh's first exploratory expedition in 1584 to what
are now known as the Outer Banks and Eastern North Carolina. The name of the
ancient settlement was called Skicoak, and was inhabited by a tribe of Native
Americans called the Chesepian, who took their name from the great bay, which
means Mother of Waters, that washed the northern boundary of their territory.
According to "The Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia," written in 1612 by
William Strachey, the Chesepians were wiped out by Chief Powhatan, the head
of the powerful Powhatan Confederacy, a few years before the arrival of the
English at Jamestown in 1607. Traditionally, Skicoak was considered to be
located on the north side of the Elizabeth River where its eastern and southern
branches converge on the exact site where Norfolk was laid out in 1680-81.
In 1608, Captain John Smith and the twelve Jamestown colonists who
accompanied him on his second exploration of the Chesapeake Bay were the
first known colonists to enter what is now the Elizabeth River to visit the area now
incorporated within the present limits of Norfolk. The narrow strip of land fronting
the Elizabeth River on which Norfolk was originally established was owned by six
early Virginia settlers and one mercantile group before it was laid out as a town
site in 1680-81 by John Ferebee, the surveyor for Lower Norfolk County.
In any event, the first white man to own the site on which Norfolk was
established was Captain Thomas Willoughby, who patented two hundred acres
"upon the first eastern branch of the Elizabeth River" on February 13, 1636/37. *
Born in England around 1601, Willoughby came to Virginia as a boy on
the ship “Prosperous” in 1610. He became one of the most important merchants
in Seventeenth Century Virginia, and his "manor plantation" was on the present
site of Ocean View. Willoughby was successively a justice of the peace, a
member of the Virginia Assembly at Jamestown, and a member of the
Willoughby owned the original site of Norfolk for only seven years,
however, for he sold it on April 1, 1644 to John Watkins, another prominent
Lower Norfolk County citizen, who again sold it on April 30, 1644, to a man
named John Norwood. He continued to hold the property until March 4, 1649/50,
at which time he sold the site to Peter Michaelson "and others, owners of the
Ship Huis van Nassau (House of Nassau)." This group, headed by Michaelson, is
presumed by historians to have been a Dutch trading company.
A few years later, on February 18, 1653/54, the site was bought by
Francis Emperor, another merchant, who renewed the patent for the land on
March 3, 1656/57, after which it changed hands again, this time to Lewis
Vandermuller, presumably another Hollander. On October 19, 1662, the site was
bought by Nicholas Wise Sr., who had the deed confirmed on March 18,
It was Wise's son who owned the property in June 1680 when the Virginia
Assembly at Jamestown passed an "Act for Co-habitation and the
Encouragement of Trade and Manufacture" that provided for the establishment of
a town in each of the twenty then-existing Virginia counties.
As Norfolk was destined to become an important seaport, it was fitting that
a seafaring man was the first property owner in the newly established town.
On October 17, 1683, Peter Smith, a mariner, purchased three half-acre lots from
the county authorities. These were in the immediate vicinity of what was to
become Market Square, later known as Commercial Place. The site is now part
of the property owned by Bank of America.
In 1670, a royal decree directed the "building of storehouses to receive
imported merchandise. . .and tobacco for export" for each of the colony's 20
counties. This marked the beginning of Norfolk's importance as a port city.
Norfolk’s natural deepwater channels soon showed their potential and in order to
protect that potential, in 1673, the House of Burgesses called for the construction
of a "Half Moone" fort at the site of what is now Town Pointe Park in downtown.
The House largely feared a threat of invasion or bombardment from the Dutch at
this time, though it ultimately proved to be unfounded.
Norfolk quickly grew in size, and by 1682 a charter for the establishment
of the "Towne of Lower Norfolk County" had been issued by Parliament. Norfolk
was one of only 3 cities in the Virginia Colony to receive a royal charter, the other
two being Jamestown and Williamsburg. The town initially encompassed a land
area northeast of the point where the eastern branch of the Elizabeth River
meets its southern branch, part of present day downtown. In 1691, a final county
subdivision took place when Lower Norfolk County was split to form Norfolk
County (present day Norfolk, Chesapeake, and parts of Portsmouth) and
Princess Anne County (present day Virginia Beach). Norfolk was incorporated in
1705 and re-chartered as a borough in 1736.
By 1775, Norfolk had developed into what many contemporaries of the
time argue is the most prosperous city in Virginia. It was a major shipbuilding
center and an important trans-shipment point for the export of goods such as
tobacco, corn, cotton, and timber from Virginia and North Carolina, to the British
Isles and beyond. In turn, goods from the West Indies such as rum and sugar,
and finished manufactured products from England were imported back through
Norfolk to the rest of the lower colonies.
In recent years, the natural harbor of Norfolk plays an important role for its
Naval Base, the largest United States naval installation in the world, and the
homeport to 75 ships and over 130 aircraft. Even more recently, Norfolk has
become a cruise ship arrival and departure destination, due to the size and
safety of the year-round ice-free harbor.
As the traditional center of shipping and port activities in the Hampton
Roads region, Norfolk's downtown waterfront historically played host to
numerous and often noxious port and shipping-related uses. With the advent of
containerized shipping in the mid-20th century, the shipping uses located on
Norfolk's downtown waterfront became obsolete as larger and more modern port
facilities opened elsewhere in the region. The vacant piers and cargo
warehouses eventually became a blight on downtown and Norfolk's fortunes as a
As Granby Street, a commercial strip near the dilapidated waterfront,
experienced a decline, Norfolk city leaders were also focused on the waterfront
and its collection of decaying piers and warehouses. Federal urban renewal
programs such as the Housing Act of 1949 promised cities around the country
millions of dollars in government grants for the purpose of removing blight
conditions and preparing urban land for redevelopment. Norfolk, as with many
other cities, including Baltimore, took full advantage of these Federal urban
renewal funds and began large-scale demolitions of broad swaths of downtown.
This included slum housing that, in the mid-20th century, did not have indoor
plumbing or access to running water. However, Norfolk's urban renewal also
included the demolition of many prominent city buildings, including the former
City Market, Norfolk Terminal Station (the Union railroad station), The Monticello
Hotel, and large swaths of urban fabric that, were they still in existence today,
might be the source of additional historic urban character, including the East
Main Street district (where the current civic complex is located).
At the water's edge, nearly all of the obsolete shipping and warehousing
facilities were demolished, leaving almost seven blocks open for redevelopment.
In their place, planners created a new boulevard, Waterside Drive. In place of the
piers and warehouses rose the Waterside Festival Marketplace, the waterfront
Town Point Park, an esplanade park with wide, open riverfront views (wikipedia);
and the Norfolk Omni Hotel. On the inland side of Waterside Drive, the demolition
of the warehouses and wharves created new parcels on which most of the high-
rise buildings in Norfolk's skyline now stand.
Following the construction of these new projects, commercial activity in
the waterfront and downtown immediately skyrocketed. Waterside, opened in
1983, for example, brought in 6 million visitors in its first year, who bought $24
million worth of merchandise and food (Olsen 308). Additionally, “the city
received $500,000 in tax revenue”, which was three times what had been
projected for Waterside’s first year of operation (Olsen 308). So successful was
Waterside, that it was credited by a Norfolk councilman as being “responsible for
reversing the decline of the center of Norfolk.” (Olsen 308).
However, by the late 1980’s sales were dropping, and in 1987 Waterside
expanded, a move that was more an attempt to “bolster sagging business” than
to meet demand (Olsen 308). But business continued to slump until it was
revived by more urban renewal projects, namely the MacArthur Center, which
opened in 1999 just blocks from the waterfront, and the Nauticus maritime
museum, opened in 1994. A new cruise ship terminal was recently opened next
to Nauticus, replacing the temporary terminals previously used.
Harbor Park, a baseball stadium for the Norfolk Tides, a AAA farm team of
the Baltimore Orioles, was opened in 1993 as another element of Norfolk’s
downtown revival scheme, and is located along the waterfront as well. The
waterfront attractions of Norfolk, including Nauticus, the Cruise Terminal, Town
Point Park, Waterside Pavilion, the various ferry-tour docks, and Harbor Park,
are all linked by the Elizabeth River Trail, a paved pedestrian and bike walk that
extends the length of Norfolk’s waterfront.
Today the waterfront is a thriving destination in downtown Norfolk. The
Waterside Pavilion contains popular restaurants like Outback Steakhouse and
Hooters, and Town Point Park hosts a variety of outdoor musical and cultural
events, many of them free. Norfolk’s historic relationship with the water and
waterfront is recognized through the “Cannonball Trail”, a walkthrough of
Norfolk’s history with the water.
The design form of Norfolk's waterfront is based upon James Rouse's
"Festival Marketplace" model, as the "Waterside" mall was the beginning of
Norfolk's waterfront revitalization. Festival Marketplaces had previously been
successful in Boston and Baltimore, two cities that had also revitalized their
dilapidated waterfronts. Baltimore's Inner Harbor was the model for downtown
and waterfront renewal, and the Rouse Company's Harborplace Pavilions were a
large factor in the success of the revitalization.
When bringing the Festival Marketplace to Norfolk, Rouse recruited
Norfolk locals to spend some time in Baltimore and observe the Harborplace
Pavilions, and to think about how the model could be translated to Norfolk (Olsen
308). Rouse was concerned with making "Waterside" festival marketplace "a
Norfolk place, with a Norfolk spirit, with a feeling of Norfolk heritage." (Olsen
308). Waterside marketplace is organized around a central core, following
Rouse's insistence that it be a destination rather than something that people
passed through. This devotion to a central core is the main difference from
Baltimore's Harborplace Pavilions, as otherwise the two designs are very much
alike in their composition of concrete and glass, with a green metal roof (Olsen
Waterside was a single multi-story pavilion centered around an
“international food court”, and contained a collection of bars, restaurants, and
tourist shopping. As opposed to Baltimore’s Harborplace Pavilions, there is only
one pavilion in the Waterside complex, as Norfolk was not large enough to
realistically support two (Olsen 308). The Waterside Pavilion was to be the main
commercial draw for the Norfolk waterfront, and would be supplemented by other
attractions such as Harbor Park and Town Point Park.
Norfolk’s waterfront redevelopment was aided by significant modifications
and additions to the transit systems. The first transit improvement was
Waterside Drive, originally built to service the Waterside Pavilion, running parallel
to the waterfront and now connecting all the major waterfront attractions. As the
road grew busier and waterfront properties drew more crowds, a few pedestrian
bridges were built to allow foot traffic to bypass the now-busy multi-lane road.