Monday, February 24, 2014

After the Crowds Have Gone


 Last Call, 2014
(Click on images to see larger)

One of the things about getting older is that you begin to realize that you’ve seen it all before. Or, if not all, at least a good part of it. It’s like the other night when, in the course of talking about a book I was reading, my sister-in-law told me there are only thirteen basic plots in all of literature. I don’t know if that’s true. But in my time I’ve seen neckties get wider, then slimmer, the wider again and yet slimmer again. I’ve seen cars get big and then small and then big again. I’ve watched a dozen artistic fads come and go. I’ve watched at least three generations “discover” the Beatles.

In the 1970s, real estate developer James Rouse conceived of a new “third place” concept—the “festival marketplace”—as a tool for revitalizing downtowns and doing social good. Boston’s Faneuil Hall was one of the first, and so successful that it quickly spawned others all over the country. (The social good element was that profits from these places would underwrite affordable quality housing in poor neighborhoods.)

In June of 1983, the “Waterside” festival marketplace opened in Norfolk, Virginia. It had all the usual festival marketplace elements—restaurants and food stalls, specialty retailers, activities for people of all ages. It was a beautiful structure overlooking the busy Norfolk harbor. From Waterside’s terrace you might see a gleaming cruise ship positioning into a drydock across the river, a towering aircraft carrier or a submarine gliding by on their way to the Naval Shipyard and other ships, yachts, tugboats and barges. Even Staten Island ferries, lately.

Harbor View, 2014

Waterside was an immediate success. It drew hundreds of thousands of locals and tourists to the formerly abandoned downtown waterfront to dine, shop and be entertained.

James Rouse knew, though, that these places wouldn’t work if the were treated like shopping centers. Rather, the differentiating characteristic of festival marketplaces was their element of serendipity.

It’s true. As long as Waterside held to this model, the crowds came. One night in the main hall you might find a competition between rock bands. Another you might find twenty-seven sailors from the Danish Navy singing and dancing to folk songs. The important thing is that you just didn’t know what you’d find when you went to Waterside. So you’d go there a lot to experience that serendipity.

Only Waterside forgot about this. When the first management team—headed by a former theme park manager—finished the job of getting Waterside up and running, their successors came from commercial real estate property management. Their experience was running shopping centers, so that’s how they treated Waterside. Good-bye serendipity. 

No More Orders, 2014
 The momentum from the opening year was so strong that people continued to come for a while after the serendipity was gone. But eventually they stopped coming. And eventually the only tenants the City could find were bars where violence became a problem. In time, the City evicted even them.

Waterside succeeded in rejuvenating downtown Norfolk. It paved the way for hundreds of millions of dollars of other development that continues to thrive. But Waterside itself became a ghost town. Most of the second floor was closed and covered up. Where there used to be chairs and benches on the main floor that could be moved around to accommodate spontaneous needs, today there are tables and seats bolted to the floor, as if you were in a prison or mall. 


No One's There, 2014

 Waterside will soon be turned over to a company that promises to refashion the place into what at first blush sounds a combination of video arcades and chain restaurants.

Hopefully I’m being too harsh. I want the new operators to succeed. But I haven’t heard anyone use a word like “serendipity” yet to describe what Waterside will become. And that makes me skeptical.


  1. I remember how exciting it was to go there in the early days. I was working at the Omni then, which before Waterside was the only glint of life on the waterfront. When the 3-11 shift ended at the hotel, you would find us all in Il Porto or any of the other places adjusting our attitudes.

  2. Unfortunately, here in the UK there are many who think that the best way to regenerate run down town centres is to treat them like managed shopping centres.