On Thursday Virginia Beach held the first round of public meetings on a plan for redevelopment of the Newtown Strategic Growth Area (SGA). There were focus groups earlier in the day, followed by a meeting open to the general public in the evening. Both types of sessions asked the same three questions and had the same map exercise as their climax.
10:30 A.M. Focus Group
Arriving early in the area by bus, I had to walk over and take a look at the eastern terminus of the Norfolk light rail line. In turn I looked down the Virginia Beach portion of the vacant Norfolk Southern Right-Of-Way. (Do I have to spell out what I was thinking?) I walked to the Virginia Beach office of Virginia's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), where all Newtown SGA meetings are slated to be held. I found the distance surprisingly walkable.
Kudos to DEQ for the nicest men's room I've ever seen in a government office building. Not only a great bathroom, but clear signage to it that meant you didn't have to ask directions.
Our 10:30 focus group was made up mostly of business people and residents from within or nearby the Newtown SGA. Therefore, they had great knowledge of the area.
This is the third SGA plan that I've participated in, and the questions on this one will probably make it harder than either of the other two (Resort Area and Pembroke) to reach a consensus:
1. Should the building mix be commercial and light industrial (current), or commercial and residential?
About 80% of the land in the SGA is now being utilized for commercial or light industrial.
A few things. First, Newtown is one of the 4 current SGAs that is suitable for large-scale residential redevelopment, being outside the Oceana AICUZ zones. Second, light industry is what the City wants in the periphery of Oceana, as it's compatible under the AICUZ regulations. Third, light industry may not have the density to support light rail.
2. What role should mass transit play in the future?
How long before Virginia Beach light rail comes online? Also, how many people will choose transit over their cars?
A few matters of note. First, it was pointed out that the first thing visitors entering Virginia Beach via I-264 see is the Newtown SGA. Therefore, it should be a pleasant-looking gateway. Second, Virginia Beach really isn't in a position to deal with the problems of Newtown Road itself with the east curb line being the Norfolk city line. Third, the walkability issue hit home when I tried crossing Princess Anne Road to catch the bus out. I found it more difficult than Virginia Beach Boulevard in my home neighborhood.
The climax of the focus group was placing dots on the SGA map: red for weaknesses, green for strengths, and blue for potential for improvement. Our group carpet bombed the Arrowhead Shopping Center with red dots.
6 P.M. General Public meeting
With the RAC meeting having run long, I was down to my third bus option - and the first of the two buses was running 9 minutes late. Still, I managed to make it there at 6:04. With a large crowd, the meeting was late starting, so I missed nothing. It occurred to me that had Virginia Beach light rail been in place, I could have taken the train from the convention center station to the Newtown Road station in minutes.
There was a Presentation made to the public (even some info not covered in the focus group), followed by the dots onto the map exercise at each table. A spokesperson from each table afterwards presented their table's input.
There were some snobbish comments. One table attacked poor neighborhoods as generators of crime. The same table wanted "no Section 8 housing" in the SGA. (NEWS FLASH: you can't legally bar Section 8 from an area.) Another table's spokesperson stated "renters have no responsibility."
There were some stupid comments. One table wanted "another Sportsplex" in the SGA. (Yeah, like the first one has been a huge success....) Another wanted "75-80 foot landscape buffers" between properties. (That's thinner than the Beach's current suburban!)
Round 2 of the process has the consultant slated to come back in December, holding a week-long studio at DEQ with possibilities. After getting feedback on them, they'll then try to draw up a final draft plan for public comment.
There were some moments of humor on Thursday evening:
1. After a couple at my table had been spewing VBTA b.s. all night, I put a red dot on their business.
2. A hotel General Manager in the SGA claimed prostitution was rampant in the Newtown Road/Greenwich Road area, provoking laughter and jokes.