A Path Not Taken


Sometimes I like to mull over the choices we have taken as a region and then, in a masochistic mood, try to pick the absolutely worst one, savoring the special flavor of failed dreams and paths not taken.

My personal favorite for all-time blooper is Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Suffolk opting to split off in the 1960s into mega land-area cities and cut off Norfolk’s expansion. In one fell swoop, we separated rich fro poor, city from suburb, growth from decay, and thus insured that it would be vastly more difficult to tackle common problems and challenges together. We built a political fence through our common garden.

Moving Hampton Roads

“The Joseph Papers”, Summer 2000. This paper was commissioned by The Joseph Center at Christopher Newport University for the study of local, state and regional government. It was the inaugural edition of “The Joseph Papers,” which are meant to provide a forum for the discussion of regional cooperation in the Norfolk Metropolitan Area. The “Joseph Papers” are scheduled to be published biannually. This paper examined regional transportation.

By Alex Marshall

Three hundred and twenty years ago a surveyor pulled his boat up on the muddy bank of a river and laid out the rudiments of a street system; streets for a new town named Norfolk, carved out of what was then Lower Norfolk County.

Who Gets the Favors?

The Virginian-Pilot
Monday, July 19, 1999

New ways of looking how we grow and develop are rare. But I think I’ve found one. It’s the “favored quarter” theory.

Myron Orfield, a state representative from Minneapolis, talks about it in his book, Metropolitics, (Brookings 1998).

In every metropolitan area, Orfield says, there is usually one chunk of the region that is receiving the lion’s share of private investment. Here is where the expensive new homes are going, the new offices and the new shopping centers.

Orfield calls it “The Favored Quarter.”

Now here’s the kicker . Not only is this favored quarter getting most of the private investment, it’s also getting most of the public investment. Here is where is going the lion’s share of new roads, sewers, schools and libraries.

Whither Virginia Beach?


Virginia Beach. The promised land.

It glistens in the sun, a shimmering mecca of backyards, beaches, prosperity and space. A wide open terrain where schools are good and crime is low, a destination, a place to start a life or fulfill one.

It still has that reputation to many, even as the city enters its 37th year and faces trend lines that dispute much of what I just said.

Urban Renewal in Norfolk

What Was Lost: A lot.
What Was Gained: Not Much.

Tuesday, August 10, 1999

The 1950s was about new stuff, not old stuff. The United States had spent two decades postponing consumption as it fought the Great Depression and then World War II. It was ready for new cars, houses, roads and ways of doing things. With a vengeance.

It was in this spirit that from 1949 into the early 1960s, Norfolk proceeded to tear down most of the buildings and streets built over the previous 275 years. A city founded in 1680 was left with little built before 1900. Cities around the country followed its example.

Old Resort City Of Virginia Beach Now More Welcoming

by Alex Marshall

When was the last time a city offered you a seat? If your town is like most towns, not recently. The public bench, once a common piece of furniture in a city’s living room, has declined in number and significance along with the public spaces it once graced.

In the resort town of Virginia Beach, it is making a comeback after a long absence. As part of an overall renovation, the city has planted teak benches at regular intervals along the 40-block strip.

A minor thing, you might say, but 25-years ago, the city ripped them all out to discourage hippies, then making their appearance, from lounging around the town’s sidewalks and beachfront. For the same reason, the city also regularly arrested people for loitering.

New Suffolk Courthouse: Will it Revive Downtown?

By Alex Marshall
For The Virginian-Pilot

SUFFOLK — This handsome new courthouse of brick and stone that sits on Main Street is one answer to the question: how do we revive this city’s downtown?

Is it the right answer? This city’s center, with two-hundred years of history, was once a bustling place. Now, like Norfolk’s Granby Street and Portsmouth’s High Street, it has declined. All of these city’s main streets are shadows of their former selves, even though there are signs of life on all of them in the form of new businesses amid the vacant storefronts.

Greater Norfolk: Why Not?

By Alex Marshall
For Port Folio Magazine

Now I’ve just cut my own throat, Mayor Paul Fraim said sheepishly.

The Norfolk leader’s fearful verdict was a good example of the dangers and contradictions associated with endorsing what might be the biggest bugaboo of local political thought: regional government.

Whatever you choose to call it, Hampton Roads, Greater Norfolk, Norfolk-Virginia Beach, what would happen if we actually had an elected regional government? Is that something we could work toward, and if so how?

When I first raised the idea with Fraim, he was firm. Nothing doing, he said. The people weren’t behind it, and “the surest way to kill an idea was to wrap it into a plan for regional government.” No way.

Don’t Let Kirn Library Fly Away

Monday, August 16, 1999
COLUMN FOR: The Virginian-Pilot

At the end of the movie Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman pleads with Humphrey Bogart to stay with him, and to let her husband, the courageous underground leader Victor Lazlow, fly off by himself.

As the prop plane beats it propellers against the air, Bogart, playing tough guy “Rick,” looks down at her and says, no way.

“You’ll regret it,” he tells her in his sandpaper-and-velvet growl. “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.”

That’s how I feel about tearing down Kirn library in Norfolk. That if we do it, we’ll regret it, and soon, and for the rest of our lives. (Imagine Bogart saying these words, in that accent that I now realize sounds vaguely like President John Kennedy mixed with Marlon Brando.)

What Makes A Neighborhood Viable?

a roundtable debate – Alex Marshall and Andres Duany
May, 1995

Our article in May about the redevelopment of East Ocean View in Norfolk, Virginia (“When the New Urbanism Meets an Old Neighborhood”), has sparked discussion – verbal, written, and electronic – about similarities writer Alex Marshall sees between urban renewal programs of the 1950s and 1960s and Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater – Zyberk’s plans for the Norfolk neighborhood. At the heart of the debate is a facet of New Urbanism that is disturbing to some critics and could impede the movement in the future: The majority of projects suggest an unwillingness to accommodate existing building stock into its new neighborhoods. New Urbanists call their movement the “architecture of community” – a questionable label when architects appear willing to remove existing communities to build new ones. But for now, the issue is whether this part of East Ocean View is viable enough to save.