By: Philip Walzer; PilotOnline.com
“All these blues should have yellows on them, guys,” Will Christopher told his table mates while locking Legos Thursday morning.
The exercise was far from child’s play.
Christopher, a Norfolk consultant, was among nearly 300 business and civic leaders from Isle of Wight County to Chesapeake who tinkered with brightly colored Legos and strands of string.
The object wasn’t to create pretty designs, but to plot – on a map of Hampton Roads without city lines – a way to house, employ and transport the 350,000 additional residents the region’s planners expect by 2035.
The half-day event, at Old Dominion University’s Ted Constant Convocation Center, was the latest in the “Reality Check” series, sponsored by the Urban Land Institute in such areas as Tampa, Fla., and North Carolina’s Research Triangle.
The goal: to encourage dialogue and deliberation about the challenges ahead.
Tabulators of the results Thursday said the most common theme was the need for multiple modes of transportation, several extending to the Peninsula.
That’s what the string was for – orange for roads, green for mass transit.
“I liked how a lot of the orange string turned to green string” as the 30 groups developed their blueprints, said Robbyn Gayer, a financial adviser with UBS in Norfolk.
Some stretched the light-rail line not only to Norfolk Naval Station and the Virginia Beach Oceanfront, but also to Suffolk. Thomas G. Johnson III, senior vice president at S.L. Nusbaum Realty Co. in Norfolk, envisioned a series of trolley loops linking with light-rail stations.
As for the Legos, yellow meant a place to live, blue a place to work.
Christopher’s point – the need to join blue and yellow Legos – was made at another table, too, by former Norfolk City Councilman Randy Wright: “You have thousands of jobs here, but if you don’t have any residences, it’s not going to work.”
Participants tended to concentrate much of the employment and housing growth along transportation corridors, such as Interstate 264, some in clumps in downtown Norfolk and Virginia Beach’s Town Center.
Other common themes included preserving green space, providing affordable housing and maintaining a strong relationship with the military.
Participants cited factors like cost and complacency as impediments to progress. Susan Hirschbiel, a philanthropist and civic activist from Virginia Beach, complained of the region’s “aversion to raising any type of revenue.” Others wondered whether politicians could escape a city-first mentality.
The Hampton Roads Planning District Commission plans to issue a report on the event later this year. Old Dominion’s E.V. Williams Center for Real Estate and Economic Development will continue research, serving as a conduit for citizens and public and private groups.
Some attendees said they, too, had a responsibility to continue lobbying for their priorities.
“We can have all the ‘Reality Checks’ we want,” said Dana Dickens, a former mayor of Suffolk who is president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Partnership, an organization advocating regional cooperation. “If we don’t take it to the next step and get it implemented, we’ve wasted a great opportunity.”