Response to Bloomberg Article about St. Paul’s Area (published September 22, 2020) by Caleb Melby
Your article “A Virginia City’s Playbook for Urban Renewal: Move Out the Poor” is not what you pitched when you first reached out to me for an interview about Opportunity Zones/Enterprise Zones and MacArthur Mall in February. You clearly had an agenda and published an article that lacks accuracy, balance, fairness and mischaracterizes the work currently underway in the St. Paul’s Area. This is not the work of a professional journalist.
Starting with the headline and following sub headline – “Norfolk is using federal tax breaks to plow under its historically Black neighborhoods” – you paint an inaccurate picture of the current redevelopment efforts in the St. Paul’s Area. Opportunity Zones are not driving the redevelopment of St. Paul’s.
You state Norfolk “wasted no time in reviving plans to remake St Paul’s” once the legislation passed. This is inaccurate. Below is a timeline of community engagement and design work in St. Paul’s dating back to 1995. Page 12 of the 2014 Expanded Transformation Plan lays out the schedule of community engagement meetings https://23b10a4e-214c-4fcf-9c3a-14bc62297cb4.filesusr.com/ugd/d15db2_3c3390823fca4e348c808e593e7a5e5c.pdf
Mayor Kenneth Cooper Alexander held resident meetings in the summer/fall of 2017 and collected community input prior to the implementation of Opportunity Zones in Norfolk. This input is reflected on the City’s website https://www.norfolk.gov/DocumentCenter/View/62747/St-Pauls-2017-Community-Meeting-Report
You anecdotally state “Out came the architect renderings of bustling, tree-lined streets, as well as the promises that departing residents would be taken care of”. Again, documents dating back to 2014 show designs shaped by resident input collected at multiple community meetings. These designs served as the foundation for multiple community meetings in 2017 that you fail to mention in your article.
In fact, since 2013, 116 meetings have been held with stakeholder representation and another 118 meetings with residents. Here is a breakdown of 2019 and 2020 to date:
2019: 71 meetings
o 38 direct community participation
o 33 stakeholder rep.
2020: 38 meetings
o 21 direct community participation
o 17 stakeholder rep.
Furthermore, the City is investing an unprecedented $3.5M every year in unduplicated funding – specifically set aside to provide supportive services and intensive case management in areas well beyond relocation dedicated to the resident of St. Paul’s to ensure that all families are stable and thriving. This investment provides services for families well beyond their move and continues for at least five years after their relocation out of St. Paul’s and regardless of whether they choose to come back to the redevelopment or live elsewhere in the City or beyond. This investment is different and above and beyond what is provided by the CNI grant and what is traditionally provided by other cities who are undergoing such a transformation. This is more than just a promise and to write about buildings but fail to include the investment in people does not accurately reflect the work currently underway in the St. Paul’s Area.
You also mischaracterize and inaccurately describe the work of Urban Strategies, Inc. The company is not “the third-party outfit the city hired to manage the move-out process”. USI is implementing People First and information about the program is located on the St. Paul’s District website www.stpaulsdistrict.org/peoplefirst.
In its procurement of the People First services the City clearly outlined the guiding principles developed with residents for the St. Paul’s transformation and the scope of People First services. The range of services is related to family coaching, mobility services, and transformative human service programs. Few Cities, if any, the size of Norfolk can lay claim to such an unprecedented level of financial commitment that provides targeted services around one project. Your article sullies the hard work of the 14 (and growing) People First staff.
At the completion of year 1, People First staff connected 68% of residents with children 0-3 to early childhood programs, increased the percent of residents who have health insurance from 22% to 89% and through economic mobility strategies, saw an increase in average annual income rise from $11,900 to $18,005 despite a national pandemic.
You wrote “City representatives say they’ve assembled a robust plan that includes helping residents secure new homes and providing support services such as job training and assistance with financial planning.” The correct People First link is www.stpaulsdistrict.org/peoplefirst
The anecdotal comment about Military Circle Mall is unfounded. What study or data do you have that supports your claim? MacArthur Center was designed to serve the region – hence the network from the highway. The Military Circle corridor is a primary shopping district that serves the entire city and the region.
You wrote “the process of emptying out the community carried on even as the pandemic raged” and further in the article you wrote “After Norfolk began the process of moving residents.” Let me be clear, 250 families have left voluntarily. No one forced residents out and to imply otherwise is deceptive. This is copy of the letter dated April 23, 2020 that was sent to Tidewater Gardens residents.
On June 25, 2019, the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority (NRHA) notified you of proposed plans to redevelop the property the Tidewater Gardens community with funding assistance awarded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative (CNI) Grant program. This notice contains important information about this redevelopment. This notice is printed on blue paper for your reference and ease.
Due to the current COVID-19 situation the redevelopment plans are being delayed. There is no requirement that you look for alternate housing, move, or use any relocation services during the next six months. After this time period, you will be given ample time to identify housing for you and your family. If you have been issued a Housing Choice Voucher or a Public Housing or Project Based Voucher, the time period for exercising that voucher will be extended.
You may proceed with relocation efforts during this time if you desire. Relocation services (case management and mobility services) will continue to be provided by People First Empowered by Urban Strategies Inc. (USI). Additionally, supportive services and case management services, which include but are not limited to health, education, and employment, will continue to be made available to the Tidewater Garden residents.
The current guiding principles of the St. Paul’s Area redevelopment give residents a choice of where they want to live. Three multi-family and one senior, mixed-use, mixed-income housing developments will be built adjacent to the downtown transit center on current vacant property. These homes will be ready before large-scale demolition. Tidewater Gardens residents have priority for these new homes. While you included information about the phase one housing demolition and replacement count, you failed to include the information we provided to you about the additional 232 affordable units that will accept current residents using a Housing Choice Voucher. Most importantly, your article completely ignores the desires of the current residents, who overwhelmingly want the transformation to proceed and are eager to move to neighborhoods of their choice. Also ignored is that most of the current public housing in St. Paul’s is in the 100-year flood plain. Building mixed income housing on the site is in fact an attempt to prevent climate gentrification we are seeing in other cities.
The project team working on the transformation of the St. Paul’s Area is made up of a large group of St. Paul’s residents, business owners, city staff and Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority staff, community leaders and elected and appointed officials who have been working for years to thoughtfully transform the lives of residents and break the cycle of generational poverty. Norfolk’s playbook is about people. It is unfortunate you choose to leave that important fact out of your narrative.
Furthermore, the Department of Development is located on the 24th floor of Dominion Tower, not the 26th floor. You met Sean at that location because you requested an interview about Opportunity Zones and Sean manages the program in the Department of Development. The subsequent tone and narrative deceive the reader into believing that from some lofty perch the Department of Development is responsible for the redevelopment of St. Paul’s. In fact, the Office of St. Paul’s Transformation and the city team leading the transformational efforts is in 1st floor city-owned office space a few blocks away. People First offices are located in the middle of the Tidewater Gardens community.
Tidewater Gardens is a public housing project that is past its useful life and hurtfully concentrates poverty. It is being replaced with new mixed income housing that deconcentrates poverty and provides replacement housing for every tenant of Tidewater Gardens that wants to return. Your allegations are recklessly wrong, could cause anxiety in the residents facing this change and puts the city in a false negative light.
My colleagues spent quite a bit of time with you and provided you with information and facts about the current redevelopment. I expect you will make the appropriate corrections as I have noted above.
Lori Crouch, APR
Director of Communications
City of Norfolk