Further on up the road

Published 9:45 pm Wednesday, December 14, 2011

One thing that’s abundantly clear to anyone who has been around Suffolk for more than a few years is that the city is in the midst of some fundamental and important changes.

Whether downtown, where landlords struggle to find ways to keep their storefronts occupied, or in North Suffolk, where shopping centers seem to fill up soon after they’re built, the Suffolk where many of us grew up has changed. Even the city’s agricultural regions have not been immune to Suffolk’s evolution, as fewer farmers work more acres and peanut fields are hard to find in what used to be known as Peanut City, USA.

Suffolk News-Herald reporter Emily Collins has been exploring in a series of Sunday feature stories how the changes during the past couple of decades have manifested themselves in North Suffolk, where they are arguably more evident than anywhere else. In that part of Suffolk, vast areas that were farms and forests just 20 or 30 years ago now host big-box retailers, shopping centers, office and industrial parks and great asphalt expanses for parking.

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It’s widely agreed that what is behind that growth is a highway that cuts through the northern part of the city for fewer than six miles. That road, I-664, changed everything in North Suffolk, because it made the city — or at least that portion of it — more accessible to those who dreamed of moving away from the urban sprawl of Virginia Beach and the core cities of Hampton Roads but were unwilling or unable to move to a truly rural area.

Transportation opportunities also had their hand in changing downtown Suffolk. As residents of historic Suffolk and their neighbors to the west and south became ever more mobile, their shopping patterns moved from downtown Suffolk to Chesapeake, Norfolk and the Peninsula. But the challenges of getting around the downtown area remained. Trains, traffic and parking issues all conspire to discourage downtown visits by a generation used to drive-through restaurants and front-door parking.

Given the transportation situations in both areas, there’s little reason to expect a major change in the trends that have shaped downtown Suffolk and North Suffolk during the past 30 years. The days of downtown hosting multiple major retailers are likely as gone as the days of combines blowing peanut dust across Route 17.

What’s needed in both areas, though for different reasons, is a smart, forward-looking plan for managed growth, one that recognizes the city’s inherent need to strike a balance between high-tech and old-time, between bedrooms and boardrooms, between farms and markets. What’s needed is a plan that recognizes how important it is for a vital downtown core to support and be supported by a vibrant northern region.

Suffolk is ill-served by those who pine for the way it once was. Surely its leaders and citizens should hold that past in mind as they plan for the future. But they cannot and should not attempt to rebuild that old city. With good planning, what’s in front of Suffolk — further along that road — will be far better than what was left behind.