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Suffolk can be choosy about growth

Published 9:11pm Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Suffolk City Council’s decision last week to keep alive the idea of a new apartment development on prime Bridge Road real estate wouldn’t be such a head-scratcher in some communities.

Some cities, including a few right here in Hampton Roads, are desperate enough for economic activity that they have to take private investment any way they can get it.

Not to be snobbish, but Suffolk is better.

North Suffolk, in fact, is one of the hottest spots in Hampton Roads and all of Virginia for commercial development. It will become even hotter as a result of the city’s new Harbour View-themed marketing effort.

Suffolk is in the most enviable of positions: to be highly selective about which commercial and residential developments it permits.

As noted in an editorial on this page Friday, residential rental is arguably the last thing Bridge Road needs.

Suffolk has done a reasonably good job over the years of balancing job growth with residential growth and letting the former drive the latter. The old saying in economic development and urban planning is that smokestacks (businesses) create rooftops (residences), not vice versa. It’s still generally true, though the demise of domestic manufacturing has made the smokestack an inapt symbol of job growth.

Apartment complexes, it should be noted, create the least desirable residential growth. They tend to attract commuters, who contribute significantly less to the local tax base than do property owners.

The truth is that Suffolk doesn’t need anymore residential growth than what is naturally occurring.

The focus in this pivotal time in our community’s development should be on job growth in all sectors — manufacturing, retail, warehousing, health care and service.

If Suffolk keeps its eye on that ball, residential growth will occur at a steady and manageable pace. No residential stimulants such as a 144-unit apartment community on prime commercial property will be needed.

Councilman Roger Fawcett teed up an easy vote for his colleagues last week with a quick motion to support the city Planning Commission’s and planning staff’s opposition to the project and reject the developers’ rezoning request.

It would have gotten the developers squarely focused on identifying marketable commercial alternatives to the office park that they originally gambled on.

Mysteriously, though, a bad idea will now get studied some more after Fawcett’s motion failed on a tied vote.

The developers, understandably, want the easy way off the hook on a bad investment. Apartments certainly would offer an easy way out. They’d fill up in a heartbeat with people commuting to Chesapeake, Norfolk and Newport News.

That’s not what Suffolk needs. Here’s hoping the City Council does what leaders of a thriving city should do: Hold out for something much better.

Steve Stewart is publisher of the Suffolk News-Herald. His email address is steve.stewart@suffolknewsherald.com.

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