By Jeff Maisey
Drew Ungvarsky is a bright guy and he has an illuminating idea for Downtown Norfolk. The plan, known as Vibrant Spaces, is simply this: provide street-level, storefront space currently not being used at a discounted rent with an injection of cash to entrepreneurial-minded people with a unique yet functional idea that will make living along the Granby Street corridor more engaging. It is a concept he proved on his own was a workable solution when he helped a pair a restaurateurs open Field Guide, a now trendy lunch and dinner hotspot, located next door to Ungvarsky’s Grow headquarters.
Ungvarsky started Grow in 2004 in his spare bedroom. The business is a digital media company whose clients include some of the most beloved brands in America including Google, HBO, Doritos, Starbucks, Toyota and Fed Ex.
Ungvarsky has volunteers as a board member for Downtown Norfolk Council (DNC). He has provided ideas to improve the city’s bikeability, and lent his talents to the new NEON arts district. Perhaps it is no surprise he’ll be presented the DNC’s 2015 Roy Badgley Distinguished Service Award on June 17. The award recognizes an individual and volunteer who has given continuously to make Downtown Norfolk a better place to live, work and explore.
Following is an excerpt of a recent interview I did with Drew Ungvarsky. Enjoy!
Where did the idea for Vibrant Spaces initially come from?
Some of it was inspired by what we did with Field Guide. We had some extra space next door that we were going to expand into and then said we didn’t need another storefront on Granby Street as much as Granby Street needed another great vibrant contributor. We sectioned that off and put it out to the community and said, “Come here with your best ideas. If you can be the best neighbor we ever had, we’ll be the best landlord you’ve ever had, and help you with half-off rent for a few years and help you with the build-out.” I was just floored to see 17 proposals in seven weeks from a lot of people I didn’t know. Most of the people were people I had no idea about with really incredible ideas that I would have never seen had we not open the process up. Ever since then I’ve been thinking about how you create that kind of opportunity for more people. Often when I tell that story to people, especially property owners and commercial people, they ask if they can have my other 16. I thought, well, let’s try to build something that draws the right people for the right spaces.
I had that in the back of my mind when Mary (Miller) asked me to chair a committee around street level vibrancy. We said there are a lot of things that contribute to the vibrancy of a street. We could be talking about the streetscape; we could be talking about events and attractions. Bikeability, walkability, all these things. Let’s have this group look specifically at street level businesses and the way that those businesses themselves and in the communities they create that they define the neighborhood.
We started to look around and define what made a really great place-defining business and what would create a most vibrant business, and categorize some of those things. We took a lot of public input and did a lot of research, both for downtown and cities around the world, and came out with what we thought was a nice unifying vision for street level businesses. More than just come out with a report and talk passively about it, we really said, “How can we accelerate more of this?” How can we take all the good stuff that’s going on and make more of that? How can we create an opportunity to invite more people into that mix. That’s the catalyst program that you see.
It is a two-part program. For businesses that are already downtown, we say here is $60,000 in matching grants that you can use to upgrade your space and make it more vibrant. So we’ve shown you a bunch of things that we think are already going well and we can look for inspiration to do more of, but really come to us with your best ideas. Whoever is going to create the most vibrancy those are going to be the ideas we select.
On the other side to attract some new people into these space and really create some new excitement and new investment, we found six spaces, five different landlords, all of whom recognize that the rising tide raises all boats, and that short term losses will pay dividends. There’s a long term gain for the future of downtown. They are all offering half-off rent for two years.
In addition to that we were able to secure some philanthropic community leaders who also believed in this vision to provide $20,000 grants for each of those new businesses that come into those six spaces.
This gives somebody a platform for the incredible idea they’ve had for awhile.
What are some of the types or categories of businesses you’re hoping for? What I read in the DNC press release listed a lot of what Ghent already has like bakeries, bike shops and the like. When you look at Cary Town in Richmond, the sidewalks are generally crowded with people, and we’ve yet to see that kind of foot traffic in Downtown Norfolk.
I’ve been downtown for a better part of the company’s ten year history. You’re right to say there’s this really strong business community but it’s largely this sort of nine to five-thirty business community. There are a huge amount of events and attractions that happen in and right around downtown. One of the newer things to this mix is a surge of residential units, all of which are contributing to a rise in foot traffic. I think every one of these opportunities, whether things like the Slover and the hotel, Waterside and the like, all those little wins in bikeability and very much what’s going on in the Arts District, all of those things are collectively, I think, building a place, not to compete against Ghent or Chelsea or North Colley. This is about building an urban core that people are hugely attracted to. If we can show people that this is city that unlike anything 90 miles around us is a place you could actually live with just one car or perhaps no cars, and walk and bike everywhere. And that the places you want to live and work and enjoy yourself can all be right in one place. All parts of that contribute to this greater vision.
Downtown is one part of that. It should very much connect to Ghent and all of the other communities around.
I’ll say specifically about downtown and Granby Street, here is a place that has come a long ways since what it was 15 years ago. You hear people say, “God, if you only seen this place 20 years ago.” It has been a complete 180, and yet still just on the cusp of its potential. This street should be a defining street for the region. It’s a 400 year old city with this beautiful collection of properties and architecture. It should be our Cary Street and then some, or our own version of that combining a working population and denser residential population. So this is about continuing to build that.
If you were in charge of the city, what would you do with Waterside? Are you in favor of the Cordish plan, or would you tear it down and then extend development along the riverfront to the baseball stadium? Other cities have a very active, and to use the word of the day, vibrant waterfront.
Waterside is maybe the pinnacle example of all of the waterfront, but you and I would both look at that and say we’ve not yet reached anything like our fullest potential. We certainly have incredible activation when it comes to events. You’ve been to these things where it’s wall to wall people really enjoying themselves. What we would hope to see is more of a constant activation. How do we get people to enjoy this city and that waterfront all the time? Waterside is a piece of that. Town Point Park is a piece of that. The strip of land connecting to Harbor Park and Harbor Park all being pieces of that. Every one important.
The city invited everyone to come with their ideas for Waterside. Do I think there was a far and away better proposal the city could have taken? No.
What really remains to be seen is what is Cordish going to do with that property. Who are the tenants that they are going to bring? And more so, how are they going to create a place that serves many audiences throughout the day that connect to what’s going on in the park. It is great to have new investment in this city. We should hope that they are going to contribute to the places just around them and recognize that raising the tide for everyone will raise everyone’s boats.
If you could be in charge of determining where light rail expands within Norfolk city limits, where would you prefer to see the routes?
I’m not close enough to know the specific routes they’re considering, but I would absolutely say past ODU to the naval station. Just thinking about massive bases of riders and connecting the areas. Considering where light rail ends right now you have to have some sort of route that connects through Ghent, ODU and to the naval base. It seems like an obvious selection.
Wards Corner recently underwent new development. Today, there are three chain mattress retailers at an intersection once hailed as the Times Square of the South. Did Norfolk miss an opportunity to rebuild a more locally focused corridor there that could have served as a connector of downtown, Riverview and Ocean View?
In terms of Norfolk’s potential, Ocean View, for me, seems like the greatest untapped resource. Here we are sitting on a beachfront – an urban city living on a river and a beachfront – and that we have not fully capitalized on that seems like such an incredible missed opportunity. So, yes, absolutely something that we need to be working towards.
Light rail can and should be part of that. The bikeability work going on is definitely working towards that.
I have specifically chose to start and focus on downtown. Start with something centralized. There are a lot of great things and a lot of wins, and that builds momentum. There is an important strategy building out from a core.
Military Circle: What could or should happen there? It’s a bigger conversation for another article. It is a huge retail corridor connected to the airport. All of the traffic infrastructure – seems like something really good should go on there.
If I could speak to your comment on the three mattress stores: I think that is a bit of a challenge within regions. One of Norfolk’s greatest strengths is that it has so many properties and people invested in it. When we did this committee’s work we looked at street level properties downtown. We saw that there were more than 200 street level spaces owned by more than 60 owners. Compare that to (Virginia Beach) Town Center where there is one or maybe two owners.
On the one hand (in Norfolk) you have this incredible amount of shared ownership, and on the other you have so many people working in different places and in different ways to bring their spaces to life. Unless there is more communication and maybe something that looks more like a unified vision you stand the chance of getting three mattress stores, or for that matter a couple of sushi shops within walking distance of one another, which both Ghent and downtown see. So trying to create more of a unified vision…
The Downtown Norfolk Council also now is recognizing they can play an important role in helping connect would-be investors to downtown and property owners to make sure there is an alignment of those businesses, and that the best businesses can find the great spaces that create synergistic uses amongst one another.
To bring it back to Vibrant Spaces, what ideas do you hope to see submitted?
I want to see things I’ve never thought of. We asked the public what you want to see more of downtown or that downtown doesn’t have. We certainly heard people say they’d love a grocery store, or maybe more specifically an urban market. We heard things like bakery and bike shop. How is it that we have an Apple store and an Urban Outfitters and a Grilled Cheese Bistro but we’re missing some key components?
What I, and I think this committee, want to see are businesses that take all of those things to the next level. Don’t just be a bike shop. Create businesses that provide many things to many people. Create more than just a place to buy something. Think about how you can combine retail and dining and entertainment. Be a place where people want to come buy something and hang out or spend their afternoon working. Building places like that is what we’re looking for most.