A tale of two roads

Published 9:36 pm Saturday, August 13, 2011

I-664 construction changed North Suffolk

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of stories on the history of North Suffolk. Look for the rest of the series in upcoming Sunday editions of the Suffolk News-Herald.

For most of its existence, the strip of U.S. Route 17 that cuts through North Suffolk and rainbows over both Bennett’s Creek and the Nansemond River has been a sleepy road with a few businesses and lots of farms, but the road took on a new life when I-664 made its way into Suffolk in 1992.

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When the highway opened up in April of that year, it would change the area for better or worse, bringing in more people and businesses.

Charles Parkerson saw Bridge Road for the first time nearly 50 years ago when he arrived at Lancaster Farms as a college student looking to get work experience.

“When I first came to the area, (Bridge Road) was a two-lane highway,” he said. “It was nothing. Nobody came out this way.”

He said he remembers being able to turn left on Bridge Road from Knotts Neck, where Lancaster is located, without thinking about traffic.

“Now, you take your life in your own hands (crossing traffic),” he said.

Parkerson, who now owns Lancaster Farms, said while there was a little bit of growth in the area throughout the years, things in North Suffolk really starting changing when Harbour View’s construction began and when I-664 opened up.

“Things really started to change,” he said. “I look back, and I think the interstate had a lot to do with it.”

Tri Cities Developers president Bob Williams, who helped develop Harbour View, said he think the establishment of highways coming into Suffolk was what opened the city up for development.

He said the addition of I-664 and I-164 connected Suffolk to the rest of Hampton Roads.

“Now, all of a sudden Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Chesapeake became close,” Williams said. “If you don’t have part of the interstate, you aren’t connected.”

But Harbour View wouldn’t have taken off, Williams said, if it hadn’t been for a last-minute design change in the off ramps.

In the original design for the highway, the exit to Bridge Road would have landed much further up the road than where Harbour View Boulevard sits today.

Williams said if the community didn’t have the main entrance there, it wouldn’t be as successful as he hoped.

“It would’ve probably developed, but it would’ve developed off of College Drive, instead,” he said.

So Williams and his fellow developers asked for a ramp that would allow access to the mixed-use community.

At the request of the Harbour View group and the calls from local churches for the road to not cut through the cemetery near Harbour View, the design was altered.

“Now, our front door is open for Harbour View,” Williams said.

The effects of the developments were felt even farther down the road than Lancaster Farms at Bennett’s Creek Pharmacy, which has been located on Bridge Road since 1985.

State Del. Chris Jones, the owner of the pharmacy, said he decided to open up shop after he came home to Suffolk help his parents.

Originally, the pharmacy was located across the street from Nansemond River Baptist Church, but in 1994, just two years after the opening of I-664, Jones moved to his current location near Lee Farm Lane.

Like Parkerson, Jones remembers when the road was just fields, and he also recalls the shift that took place when I-664 opened.

“Over time, when 664 opened up, the dynamic changed dramatically,” he said. “It changes the patterns of travel throughout the region. It just offered another option.”

All of a sudden, national retailers, like Farm Fresh and Walgreens, moved into the area to get the business of new residents in the area.

“People saw how conveniently located Suffolk was to the rest of Hampton Roads,” Jones said.

He said he thinks I-664 was the catalyst that led to other changes that motivate growth in North Suffolk.

The addition of employment opportunities like U.S. Joint Forces Command brought more people in, Jones said.

“Then it became a center for employment, and I think the rest is history in that regard,” he said. “You’ve just seen more and more homes being built up. It turned from a bedroom community into a mixed-use community.”

But despite all the changes the area has seen over the past 20 years, both Parkerson and Jones said Bridge Road is still a place for small businesses.

“While you’ve got your big-box and national brands, I think you still have small businesses,” Jones said.

He said his pharmacy serves patients who have lived in North Suffolk their whole lives, as well as customers who are new to the area.

“Everyday we’re getting more and more new people coming in,” he said.

Parkerson said because Suffolk farmers are only taxed for the land they use, they are able to stay in business and don’t have to sell land to make ends meet.

“It’s a big part of why we have still been able to be at Bennett’s Creek,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the land use tax, we’d have to move.”

Parkerson said he thinks the farms and field on Bridge Road make the area feel open.

He said while the area has changed dramatically since he first moved here, the changes have been welcomed.

“Change is not always a bad thing.”