Norfolk Wants to Remake Itself as Sea Level Rises, but Who Will Be Left Behind?

The proud Navy town sees itself as a living lab for coastal resilience, one in desperate need of solutions as flooding worsens. Not every neighborhood will be saved.

As another storm swept through Norfolk on a chilly evening, Michelle Cook pointed to the puddles growing on a path where children walk to school in Tidewater Gardens.

Water stood wheels-deep in a nearby intersection. In heavy rain, she said, both the road and the path flood, and children find another way to school. Or, they simply stay home.

"Flooding, rain, just to hear those words, for parents it puts a heavy burden on them," she said.  

Cook's kids are grown now, but as president of a tenants' group for one of Norfolk's poorest public housing developments, she remains an advocate for the project's children.

Tidewater Gardens is among the most flood-prone areas in a city with one of the fastest rates of sea level rise in the country—half a foot since 1992, about twice the global average. Parts of the development were built in an old creek bed. When it rains or a storm pushes ocean tides higher than usual, water moves in like an old man settling into a well-worn chair.

Michelle Cook stands on the path children from Tidewater Gardens take to get to school. It frequently floods during storms. Credit: Nicholas Kusnetz/ICN

Michelle Cook stands on the path children from Tidewater Gardens take to get to school. It frequently floods during storms. Credit: Nicholas Kusnetz/ICN

Climate change, sinking land and changing ocean currents have turned Norfolk into a case study on the vulnerability of coastal cities to flooding in a warming world. Over the past two decades, the city has experienced twice as many days of tidal flooding as it had in the previous three decades. At the same time, a warming climate has brought more frequent heavy downpours.

Like many coastal cities, Norfolk has begun raising streets, installing pumps and planning major floodwalls.

But officials here are also embracing a radical, holistic approach to pull Norfolk back from the brink. They want to not just fortify vulnerable areas, but to do so in a way that reshapes and reinvigorates the entire 400-year-old city, which is home to the nation's largest naval base but has seen sluggish economic growth in recent decades.

The aim is to pair climate adaptation with economic development, with an eye toward lifting places like Tidewater Gardens out of poverty and remaking the city into a technology hub for the coastal solutions of the future.

On the Brink

"No one's as advanced on this work as Norfolk," said Carlos Martín, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. In particular, he said, Norfolk rewrote its zoning code this year to incorporate resilience to rising seas, adopting measures he described as "kind of miraculous."

But at the same time, Norfolk is discovering the limits of how quickly it can change. In Tidewater Gardens, the city's plan—replacing the development with a mixed-income neighborhood while ceding low-lying spots to open space—has residents and housing advocates fearing it will really amount to city-supported gentrification. In wealthier areas, the city's bold move to identify "adaptation" zones—areas so vulnerable to flooding that it won't protect them with expensive infrastructure—could fuel fears among residents that their property values will plummet.

Skip Stiles, a former Congressional staffer who runs a local nonprofit called Wetlands Watch that has worked closely with the city, said Norfolk is stepping into a gap left by the federal government, which has no real plan for how the nation will cope with rising seas, including at Naval Station Norfolk.

"We're living the experiment," he said, "and there's no control."

Most of Norfolk, home to the nation's largest naval base, is less than 15 feet above sea level. Credit: Tyler Folnsbee/U.S. Navy

Most of Norfolk, home to the nation's largest naval base, is less than 15 feet above sea level. Credit: Tyler Folnsbee/U.S. Navy

A Living Lab for Adapting to Rising Seas

On a bright day last winter, several dozen executives, architects, military officers and government officials from around the country gathered in a glass room atop Norfolk's main public library. It was the start of an initiative on coastal innovation, organized by a project of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a local nonprofit that the city of Norfolk created to fund technological solutions to coastal resilience.

The conference was exactly the type of event city leaders had hoped to host: one that draws a national mix of private and public sector leaders to use Norfolk as a laboratory for adapting to rising seas.

The seed was planted in 2015, when Norfolk brought in a group from the Netherlands for what it called the "Dutch Dialogues." Andria McClellan, a city councilwoman who at the time was on the planning commission, said city officials realized then that climate adaptation could provide a vehicle for economic development.

"Their technology around this is a huge portion of their GDP," she said of the Dutch. Much of the Netherlands lies below sea level, and the country's expertise on how to tame and adapt to water has become a national export.

City leaders also began to realize that rather than focusing only on fortifying the areas at risk, they also needed to rethink the places that are relatively safer.

"Let's focus on the areas that aren't at risk, and how we can develop and improve and densify those areas," said George Homewood, Norfolk's planning director, "so that our great little city by the sea gets to continue to be that great little city by the sea because we've been able to move it and shape it over time to places that are less at risk."

Chart: Norfolk's Accelerating Sea Level Rise

In 2016, Homewood led the publication of "Vision 2100," a broad-strokes scoping document for how Norfolk could literally reshape itself into "the coastal community of the future."

The vision divides the city into four color-coded zones. Green and purple represent relatively safe areas where the city should focus future development and improve existing neighborhoods. The red zone—mostly downtown and the Naval base, and including Tidewater Gardens—are areas of dense development that need protection. The yellow zone represents the boldest move: areas where the city can't afford to build expensive flood protection but must instead rely on some combination of adaptation and retreat.

In January, Norfolk passed an overhaul of its zoning code that implements some of the vision, in baby steps. It requires new buildings in the coastal zone—which largely matches the yellow and red areas of Vision 2100—be elevated 3 feet above the level of water expected in a 100-year flood. New buildings have to capture at least the first 1.5 inches of rainfall on-site. It also provides incentives to steer new development away from the coastal zone and toward less-flood-prone areas.

During high tides, the river laps over its walls into the streets of some Norfolk neighborhoods. The city says it won't be able to save communities like this. Credit: Nicholas Kusnetz/ICN

During high tides, the river laps over its walls into the streets of some Norfolk neighborhoods. The Chrysler Museum of Art is just around the corner. Credit: Nicholas Kusnetz/ICN

But if Norfolk is to remake itself, Homewood and others say, it has to include everyone.

The city's median income is below the national average, and many of its poorest citizens are packed into public housing projects or run-down neighborhoods. The fastest growing industries in the city pay low wages. Norfolk also has a history of racism and injustice to overcome.  

Nowhere is this more apparent than Tidewater Gardens, which along with two adjacent housing projects makes up an area called St. Paul's.

"This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity we've got, to keep the faith with all of the people in this city," Homewood said, "and to elevate parts of this city, and I mean that in the physical sense and also a social and economic sense, part of the community that quite frankly has been left behind and forgotten."

While some city leaders have wanted to redevelop St. Paul's for more than a decade, their plan has only come to fruition in recent years, as officials have superimposed their resilience plans on the area.

"Bottom line is, Tidewater Gardens? We gotta get them out of there," Homewood said.

'Everybody Needs Housing'

Tidewater Gardens and two adjacent developments were built in the 1950s after the city cleared away older slums near downtown. It was meant to solve problems of housing and poverty, but it created challenges of its own.

Two-story brick buildings are arrayed in large blocks like military barracks. They host no stores and no restaurants. The median annual household income is about $12,000. More than 95 percent of residents are black. Now, Norfolk wants to knock it all down once again and build a mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood that would provide jobs, break up the concentration of poverty and resolve flooding.

"The crown jewel of the neighborhood," one planning document from last year reads, "will be the transformation of the low-lands area that is often devastated by flooding into a water eco-center comprised of great parks and green spaces," adding: "Norfolk will no longer be on the water but rather will be of the water."

What's not clear, however, is what will happen to the 4,200 people who live in the three public housing projects. And Cook and many others fear that ultimately, many of them will be left to fend for themselves.

Michelle Cook acts as a liaison between residents of Tidewater Gardens and the city of Norfolk. Credit: Nicholas Kusnetz/ICN

Michelle Cook acts as a liaison between residents of Tidewater Gardens and the city of Norfolk. She and others in the community worry about the city's plans to raze the low-income housing project and replace it with a mixed-income neighborhood, and what it will mean for their futures. Credit: Nicholas Kusnetz/ICN

Cook, 57, is president of the Tidewater Gardens Tenant Management Corporation, which acts as a liaison between residents and the city. She's a tall woman, and she wraps her hair in brightly colored scarves. She grew up in Norfolk and for years lived outside of public housing. She raised three boys and worked full-time as a certified nursing assistant while supplementing her income with part-time work in fast food and as a security guard. "Whatever money these two hands made," she said, "that was it."

About 20 years ago, Cook developed kidney disease that required dialysis. She was unable to hold a full-time job, and she ended up in Tidewater Gardens. She eventually received a kidney transplant, but that put her on a lifetime course of steroids and immunosuppressants.

Across the country, cities have moved away from a 20th century model of public housing, where government-run and -subsidized buildings are clustered together. Instead, some cities have adopted a goal of integrating low-income housing into mixed-income neighborhoods while leaning on a system of vouchers to help residents pay market-based rents. In some cases, however, residents have been left without enough support or affordable housing.

After Norfolk knocks down St. Paul's public housing, which it hopes to do in phases beginning early 2020, it will not replace all 1,700 subsidized units. Instead, privately owned buildings would include a mix of market rate and rent-controlled units. The city expects 600 households will remain in the new buildings with rental assistance, while about 700 will enter the private rental market with vouchers. Another 400 will "transition out of assisted rental housing." The city says it will provide case management and vocational services for every family and that no one will be forced to leave the area.

Cook said she and many residents are increasingly stressed by the uncertainty of what's to come. She's working on a plan for what to do when Tidewater Gardens is gone. She wants to work as a pharmacy technician, but can't do it full-time. Currently, she lives off her Social Security payments, which cover her rent of about $250 per month.

Sarah Black and Chris Galloway, legal aid lawyers who have been lobbying against the redevelopment on their own time, say the city's plans for St. Paul's are overly optimistic at best. The rental market is tight and waiting lists are long for vouchers and public housing. Anyone with a history of late payments or evictions, they say, will likely be passed over by landlords. "Most of them would be entering a life of housing instability," Black said.

Animation: What Will Sea Level Rise Look Like in Norfolk, Va.?

The city has a history of demolishing housing for poor, black residents and not following through on promises to help them find somewhere better. This time, officials say, things will be different. One difference Cook counts on is that two years ago the city elected its first black mayor, Kenneth Cooper Alexander.

The city was poised to approve a redevelopment plan last year, but after Cook and others criticized the city for moving forward without adequate public review, the City Council postponed the measure. In January, the council passed a measure to develop a "People First" plan, which would include case management for each family, while also authorizing the housing authority to begin a process to demolish the units.

Lori Crouch, a spokeswoman for the city, declined to make anyone available for an interview, saying there's no specific plan for redevelopment yet. She pointed instead to the "People First" plan, which according to a newsletter given to the community, was "designed to help you and every person in your household reach his or her goals."

The plan hasn't settled the fears of many residents.

"Hello, excuse me. Everybody needs housing," Cook said. "It just don't make any sense to me to say you're going to tear down housing and not replace what you take down."

The 'Yellow Zone': Some Neighborhoods Won't Be Saved

Along the coasts of the United States, cities were built under the seemingly safe assumption that land is land, and water is water. But the assumption of fixed coastlines proved wrong, and many neighborhoods may soon find themselves on the wrong side of the line.

Around Norfolk, seas are expected to rise another 6 inches to 1.5 feet over the next three decades. The rate of sea level rise in the second half of the century is more uncertain. A rapid cut in global emissions would make a tremendous difference. Without that, more pessimistic projections say seas could rise 6.5 feet or more by 2100, a level that would inundate nearly 40 percent of Norfolk at least twice a month, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. About 350 other U.S. communities would be in similar shape or worse.

While many of those communities may end up protected by walls or other infrastructure, there's growing recognition that some places will just get wetter and wetter and be lost to the sea.

Map: Water Keeps Returning to Norfolk's Historic Shorelines

For Norfolk, these neighborhoods are represented in the "yellow zone" of Vision 2100, the places where innovation, adaptation or retreat will take the place of hardened protections like floodwalls or levees. This concession raises a host of ethical and even existential questions for cities, about who and what to protect and what to do as a place like Norfolk, bound by water on three sides, begins to shrink.

David Chapman lives in this yellow zone, in Norfolk's Larchmont neighborhood, a middle-class area home to professors and military families. He and his wife bought their home, four blocks from the water, in 1986, when flooding was merely an occasional nuisance.

Over the past decade, he's watched the tide swallow his street during the biggest storms.

The end of his street now becomes impassable in heavy rain. A block away, Hampton Boulevard—the main conduit connecting downtown and the Navy base—floods regularly. The water has come as far as the top step of his low stoop. He's convinced his home's value will decline, and he wants to get out.

"We've got to move one of these days," he said. "And if we move, I want to be in a condo that's on the second floor, way above water."

David Chapman lives in Larchmont in a part of Norfolk's Yellow Zone. He points to where flooding has risen up his stairs in the past. Credit: Nicholas Kusnetz/ICN

David Chapman points to where water has risen up the stairs of his Larchmont neighborhood home during past flooding events. Credit: Nicholas Kusnetz/ICN

If enough of his neighbors harbor the same fear—along with potential buyers—it could prove disastrous for the city.

"There's going to be a point where the value of homes in neighborhoods that repeatedly flood decline suddenly and precipitously," said Harriet Tregoning, who oversaw disaster recovery at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama. Maybe a potential buyer can't afford a newly raised flood insurance premium, or maybe a bank won't provide a 30-year mortgage. If this happens in a place like Larchmont, a small crisis could spread quickly. "It's not a mortgage here or there. It's hundreds of thousands of mortgages over time."

In 2016, Freddie Mac, the federally backed mortgage bank, said rising seas were likely to displace millions of people from homes worth hundreds of billions of dollars in this century. It warned of a mortgage crisis like what Tregoning envisioned, and said while the losses may be gradual, they would likely be greater than those of the junk-mortgage-fueled Great Recession. "Non-economic losses may be substantial as some communities disappear or unravel," the report states flatly. "Social unrest may increase in the affected areas."

Such a collapse is not imminent. But there are grounds for concern.

One recent study in Florida's Miami-Dade County found that home values closer to sea level are not appreciating as much as those higher up. Norfolk's real estate assessment growth has slowed over the past decade, though no one has tied that to flooding.

"That's what Vision 2100 is all about," said Homewood, the planning director. It's about signaling risk. "That's not to say this area is going away and we ought to run like hell right now," he said. "If you're into, 'bring on the risk,' well then come on down. And slowly but surely, property values and things like that are going to start adjusting."

It's not uncommon to find houses in Norfolk neighborhoods near the water that have been raised several feet above ground level. Credit: Nichols Kusnetz/ICN

It's not uncommon to find houses in Norfolk neighborhoods near the water that have been raised several feet above ground level. Credit: Nichols Kusnetz/ICN

In 2015, Moody's Investors Services issued a report about Hampton Roads, the region surrounding Norfolk, saying that while flooding hadn't yet affected the bond ratings of the area's cities, "further capital investment and effective planning" would be needed "to mitigate negative credit effects."

The city has since received encouragement from Moody's about its work, but the flooding will only get worse. McClellan, the city councilwoman, said politicians need to get ahead of the problem, though she's not sure quite how.

"How can we be proactive enough, and spend the money we don't have, with the resources we don't have, so that we don't get to that point where we have a slippery slope?" she said. "If housing prices start to go down, you have less tax revenue, so you have less city services, and it's a spiral that can be very dangerous."

'We're Beginning to Ask the Right Questions'

Hours after he attended the coastal innovation conference earlier this year, Homewood sat in his office overlooking the water. The event left him invigorated.

"I truly believe that technology will begin to address some of our climate issues and some of our sea level rise issues," he said.

Homewood has floppy white hair and glasses, and he's unusually blunt for a public official. He recalled a conversation from that morning with another participant about a city of floating houses, or other as-yet-unimagined solutions. "There are obviously some issues, but in theory, can we live with water? Can we make it so the water comes, the water goes, and we just keep on keepin' on?"

And yet he gave a sobering assessment for the city and how much it can actually achieve.

Parts of downtown Norfolk are partially protected by flood gates. Credit: Nicholas Kusnetz/ICN

Parts of downtown Norfolk are protected by flood gates. George Homewood, Norfolk's planning director, sees proposals for new barriers as little more than a Band-Aid on a much larger problem. Credit: Nicholas Kusnetz/ICN

The Army Corps of Engineers has proposed a $1.7 billion series of seawalls, storm surge barriers and other infrastructure to protect much of Norfolk from a 50-year storm with 1.5 feet of sea level rise. But the proposal would do little to address routine flooding from rising seas in some areas because the barriers would need to remain open except during major storms.

Homewood characterized the proposal as a Band-Aid: "over $1 billion to buy us 20 years," he said.

The Navy base—which is critical to the city's economy—has identified 1.5 feet of sea rise as a tipping point that would dramatically increase the risk of flood damage, but it has no specific plan to address the threat.

Norfolk officials say they don't know how exactly their city will cope in the long term if seas rise quickly. They voice an understandable, but ultimately troubling faith that someone, somehow, will figure out a solution. Homewood acknowledges that, on some level, it won't be enough.

"There are parts of the city that are vulnerable and cannot be effectively protected. And then there's other parts of the city where you've got to scratch your head and say, you know, maybe we could protect it, but what's the cost-benefit of that? The good thing is, there's an awful lot of discussion going on. The city is having the conversation," he said. "We don't have all the answers, but we're beginning to ask the right questions."

Top photo: High tides have started to creep into the outlines of Norfolk's former shorelines, areas that were filled in years ago and built up. Credit: Kyle Spencer/City of Norfolk

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