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Nurturing downtown

Plans to revive area are maturing favorably

BY Allison T. Williams

  The city has spent much of the last five years successfully wooing new businesses and development into Suffolk's once floundering downtown.
  And now, say city leaders, it's time to bring in the people.
  Three projects expected to pump new lifeblood into downtown - a hotel on Constant's Wharf, a cultural center at the former Suffolk High School and the restored Professional Building - are finally coming to fruition.
  Visitors from Hampton Roads and beyond are discovering Suffolk, many drawn to the growing number of restored historic buildings, unique shops and eateries opening in the city's downtown corridor.
  Until recently, downtown revitalization had largely centered on commercial growth, said Elizabeth McCoury, the city's downtown development coordinator. Today, the city has expanded its vision to include the next step in building a thriving downtown: Residential growth.
  "That is critical," McCoury said. "To have a 24-hour downtown, you need people living there to help support the businesses.

    "Over the next five years, I believe downtown Suffolk is going to become a great place to live, with a diverse group "of small businesses and more cultural opportunities. I think Main Street is about squared away - that the focus will now be on East Washington Street."
  Ray Gindroz, a principal with the Pittsburgh-based Urban Design Associates, which has helped the city with the development of its downtown and village initiatives, agreed.
  Downtown residents are an important part of the equation that leads to a lucrative downtown, he said.
  "Seeing people living in downtowns gives confidence to outsiders that the downtown is a good place to do business," Gindroz said. "It shows that people care about the downtown neighborhood and they feel safe there."
  And it's already beginning to happen, evident by the success that Garcia Development Corp.'s restoration of College Court, a historic bungalow community in the heart of downtown Suffolk. All eight of the bungalows, plus a couple of buildings adjacent to the Main Street development, have been restored and sold, said Mickey Garcia.
    In fact, that project has been so successful that Garcia has already embarked on his company's second downtown project, which is about to close on three buildings -155 and 157 East Washington St. and 135 Commerce Street.
  One of the buildings will be renovated and turned into a 24-hour athletic club, where members using a magnetic pass will able fit workouts around their own schedules, Garcia said.
  At least one, maybe both, of the other buildings will be leased to restaurants, he added.
  Garcia is planning to restore the upper floor of a warehouse into 13 upscale soft-loft apartments.
  "The outside of the building will look industrial," he said. "You are going to feel like you are walking into the Taj Mahal when you go into the apartments.
  "They will have 16-foot ceilings, visible duct work, modern halogen lighting. The kitchens will have granite counter tops and really trendy, cool appliances, very retro-looking."
  The lofts are gong to fill a major void in Suffolk's existing housing supply, he said.

  "There is no where in downtown Suffolk for young professional people to live," Garcia said. "So I'm going to build lofts and the yuppies will come."
  The lofts will probably start out as apartments, renting for about $1,000 month. But within five years, he intends for them to sell as owner-financed condominiums.
  "I'm not big into apartments," Garcia said. "Homeowners are permanent residents and they have a vested interest in the community around them.
  "Besides, I think home-ownership is the American dream and its one of the best tax benefits a person could have," he continued. "Every American wants to own his own place."
  Across the street from Garcia's project, the city and the Suffolk Re-development and Housing Authority is preparing to begin work on The Fairgrounds, the city's first and the region's largest urban renewal project.
  Built on 17 acres of land adjacent to downtown, historically called the Fairgrounds within the city's black community, the $10 million, 160-home project is a mixed development that will include some rental hosing, duplex and single-family homes ranging from $85,000 to $275,000.
  Projects like the Fairgrounds are going to make downtown Suffolk, he said.
  Deme Panagopulos, who has restored several downtown buildings, including the Luke House and the Gardner Store, expressed some concern.
  "If we build the Fair-grounds, are we going to see upscale neighborhood come in?" he said. "Or will we see a migration of people leaving older homes to buy new ones?"
  That would simply lead to the creation of new tenements and rental properties, he said. It's happened before, when the city's peanut magnates built their mansions in Pinner Street.
  "When the company sold and the executives left the area, the buildings went into disrepair and the economic area went into neglect," he said.
  Both Garcia and Panagopulos believe the city needs to aggressively work to draw more professional businesses - rather than manufacturers - into the downtown area.

Garcia Development Corp, has not only restored and renovated the eight College Court bungalows it owns, but they've also been sold. Next, Garcia is turning his attention to a nearby portion of East Washington Street.

When most of the jobs created are industrial-based type, the area ends up swamped with low-paying jobs, Panagopulos said.
  Garcia suggested that downtown Suffolk needs to carve itself a lucrative niche, one that will bring more professionals to live, shop, work and recreate in the downtown community.
  "Suffolk doesn't have a financial district," he said. "And Suffolk is the fastest-growing city in the state. But where are all the realtors and mortgage companies? I've sold 10 houses here in Suffolk and not one of the deals has closed in Suffolk. None of the real-tors were from Suffolk and none of the finance companies were from Suffolk."
  As more people move into downtown Suffolk, it will continue to spur new development and new businesses, he said.
  Other private developers are getting involved in the game, McCoury said. Seven buildings along East Washington Street, from the intersection of North Main to the railroad tracks, are in the process of changing hands.
  With the past two months, two long-awaited new eateries - Baron's Pub and Kelly's Restaurant and Tavern - have opened at opposite ends of North Main Street.
  The city can anticipate more eateries in the months to come, McCoury said.
  A Great Bridge seafood restaurant, Rose Bay Seafood, will be opening on North Main later this spring at the former Nansemond Drug Store building.
  Just across the street, developer Buddy Gaddams, owner and developer of the Profesional Building, is talking with several Hampton Roads restaurateurs interested in opening an upscale eatery on the building's first floor.


  Other businesses are also in the market for space, McCoury said. In recent months, for example, she has talked with people interested in opening a large antique mall and jazz club in the downtown Suffolk area. Others are interested in office space, she added.
  Meanwhile, the big projects that city leaders are convinced will steer downtown into prosperity are slowly becoming tangible.
  In fact, the Gaddams finished the renovating the 27,000-square-foot Professional Building in mid-December. With the exception of first floor, the entire building is home to the Suffolk Public Schools' administrative offices.
  On the opposite end of North Main, work is finally under way on the $21 million Hilton Garden Inn and Suffolk Conference Center that will sit on the banks of the Nansemond River. If things move as scheduled, the hotel will be ready to open in early 2005.
  The third project - restoring Suffolk High and turning it a cultural arts center - will be getting under way within the next couple of months. If it is finished on schedule, the building, which will include art galleries, auditoriums and plenty of performing, and classroom space, will dramatically change the face of downtown.
  "I really don't believe there's ever really a silver bullet," McCoury said. "But the Suffolk Center for the Cultural Arts is going to be a huge boon for downtown.
  "Whenever you look at a great, vibrant downtown, there is always a cultural component."
  The project, if finished on schedule, will debut in October 2005.