Plenty of space for everything

Published 6:46 pm Monday, May 18, 2015

Historically, Suffolk’s State of the City event is the place where the city likes to take the opportunity to make big announcements about economic development successes.

Thursday’s event was no exception, as Mayor Linda T. Johnson used the venue to tell hundreds of guests at the Hilton Garden Inn about a variety of retailers with plans to open new stores in the northern end of the city. Ross Dress for Less, Michaels, Petco, Designer Shoe Warehouse and Ulta Beauty took top billing. Also on the horizon are a Texas Roadhouse, Five Below and others.

Folks in historic Suffolk would love to have heard news about a new grocery store, popular restaurants or maybe a big-box retailer, but the facts are hard to ignore: North Suffolk is growing, the Harbour View area pulls from neighborhoods in at least three different cities and the area already has proved itself able to attract shoppers. Historic Suffolk has proved to be a riskier proposition for retail and commercial development.

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It’s often said that retail follows rooftops. North Suffolk has rooftops galore, and they’re just going up faster and faster as the economic recovery takes hold in Hampton Roads. With hundreds of new apartments coming online there — and more on the books to follow — the northern part of the city offers retailers and restaurateurs thousands of new potential customers.

Historic Suffolk is growing, as well. The redevelopment of West Washington Street is a great residential success story, for example. But the opportunity for growth is more limited in the downtown area, and negative attitudes about apartment construction and neighborhood development there do little to encourage retail development.

This is not an argument in favor of locating hundreds of new apartments in the downtown area. In fact, the most recent proposal for such a development — Obici Place, proposed for the former site of Obici Hospital on North Main Street — is just the wrong sort of thing for the area where it’s proposed. Traffic on an already-stressed road would increase. Schools would be further overcrowded. And an opportunity for something truly special in historic Suffolk would be forever lost.

However, there’s something to be said for facing the reality of Suffolk’s development situation. North Suffolk is already growing into a retail and commercial center. Success there will breed success, and the area is destined to grow even more. Downtown, on the other hand, could offer something completely different, something very much like the best of what it already offers. Downtown Suffolk can be a historical center, a place where folks can go for the arts, an area featuring eclectic shops and renowned restaurants. With careful planning, Downtown Suffolk can be a destination for all of Hampton Roads and a trendy place to live, while the commercial part of North Suffolk can provide the shopping amenities valued and needed by residents from all around the city.

There’s plenty of space in Suffolk for everything folks here need and desire. Careful planning will ensure that everything goes where it works best.