Editorial: Norfolk’s silence over development effort won’t work

The Virginian-Pilot & Daily Press Editorial Board, The Virginian-Pilot
·3 min read

The St. Paul’s redevelopment demands more information from Norfolk officials, not less, and it’s absurd that key city leaders have chosen this pivotal moment to withdraw from the public discourse.

Norfolk Communications Director Lori Crouch told The Virginian-Pilot last week that due to a lawsuit over the project, city officials would no longer talk about the redevelopment effort. Never mind that the lawsuit was filed more than a year ago and that officials have, until now, been willing to talk about the specifics.

This massive effort represents one of the largest changes to downtown Norfolk in the city’s long and storied history. Some 1,700 housing units are slated for demolition, affecting about 4,200 residents, and what follows will alter the trajectory of the community, and the region, for generations.

It makes absolutely no sense, then, that city officials have decided not to discuss it further.

According to Virginian-Pilot reporting, the effort will be discussed in regular city meetings and that’s it. City Attorney Bernard Pisko cited “pending litigation” in advising officials not to answer questions outside of public sessions.

City Manager Chip Filer declined to comment on the change in protocol. To his credit, Mayor Kenny Alexander said the city should be forthcoming with the media.

“I think that they should answer your questions,” Alexander told a Pilot reporter. “We have people who are working on St. Paul’s every day. They should be able to communicate about the work they’re undertaking on behalf of the city.”

Certainly, city residents deserve to know more about this enormous undertaking, estimated to cost more than $1 billion. Frankly, there are a lot of unanswered questions.

The public should hear officials explain the relocation of thousands of people, including how their treatment will be fair and equitable. And the city should be forthcoming and specific about the future of land on which the city has staked its future.

Instead, Norfolk officials have chosen silence. Leave all these details to us, the city is essentially saying. Don’t worry about what we’re doing. Trust us to get it right. Everything will work out fine.

Sorry, but that’s not good enough for the people of Norfolk because the St. Paul’s redevelopment needs considerable scrutiny as it unfolds.

Communication — the lack thereof — has been at the root of concerns about the St. Paul’s redevelopment effort. City officials have not been as transparent as possible about details, leaving affected residents to wonder, and worry, about what their future holds.

Residents should be concerned that these plans do not include a 1:1 replacement of public housing units and could — and probably will — result in some St. Paul’s residents leaving Norfolk, not out of choice but out of necessity.

Citizens have every right to ask questions and, given that this is a massive public project using public funds and affecting hundreds of members of the public, city officials should feel compelled to answer them.

It’s correct that replacing these dilapidated public housing units is a community priority, and the promise of mixed-use development and mixed-income residences is genuinely appealing. To have that much land so close to downtown, poised for new construction, makes Norfolk the envy of its peers.

But for this to work, the city must tend to those who will be displaced, who will have their support networks shattered and who may be relocated from the only homes they’ve ever known. Norfolk must be clear and straightforward about what will follow and who will benefit — and how this will help those most affected.

For the city to go silent now, at so critical moment, casts the project into further doubt and will only serve to erode trust and confidence in this effort and those in charge of it. Norfolk officials should admit this was a mistake, reverse course and resume the type of open communication needed for the St. Paul’s redevelopment to be the success we all hope it will be.