By Al Markowitz
Congratulations to Kenny Alexander, our first post-Fraim elected mayor. That he is also the first black mayor in Norfolk’s 334 year history is long overdue and worth celebrating. I would like to express some hopes I and others have for the future of our city.
Norfolk continues to have race-based problems with our police. Our city saw more citizens killed by police than any other city in the state the last year. Norfolk police Chief Michael Goldsmith has, to his credit, made significant efforts in improving officer training but we still have a stubborn police culture.
I hope Mayor Alexander in being more sensitive to issues of police abuse will focus on this and seriously consider citizen oversight including a citizen police review board and civilian Police Inspector General who, with input from the community, has the power to address issues and discipline or remove offending officers.
The problem with police violence cannot be separated from entrenched poverty reinforced by lack of opportunity, low wages, and a culture of frustration and mistrust resulting from a long history of institutional racism. Though there is no simple panacea, I hope Mayor Alexander will work to address these root causes. In my opinion, it is vital to have real input from local community leaders. I also think that expanding subsidized vocational training helps foster economic opportunity and personal pride.
As long as I’m on law enforcement issues, a festering peeve of mine has been our downtown parking situation. The proliferation of parking meters is bad enough but now, like the tunnels, they are increasingly inaccessible without smart-phones or credit cards. Though parking is not metered after 6 pm the difficulty and expense of parking downtown loses our city more money by driving people away than the revenue gained by parking fees. Why would anyone want to pay to park and risk the all too common citation to patronize Norfolk businesses when it is not an issue in the surrounding cities? I hope to see a more common sense approach that does away with paid parking in our fair city.
Personally, I would like to see better city planning. I realize that the very mention of this concept is seen as radical and dangerous in our city but we suffer from a lack of it. A trip down Little Creek Road provides the strongest example of this. Another example is the number of big box grocery stores in close proximity at Wards Corner and in Ghent while other areas of our city remain food deserts.
As a small publisher, I also find it frustrating that, short of placing orders for delivery, I have to drive out to Janaf shopping center to find a store with a full range of office and computer supplies. Don’t we have enough of a need closer to downtown? How about clothing and shoes? A friend complained to me that in looking for children’s shoes, the choices were limited to expensive stores in the mall, Walmart or thrift stores. Fancy downtown mall aside, we could benefit from more practical spread of stores. We used to have more of them at Wards Corner and on 21st Street.
I have also heard resentments that so much of our city spending has been focused on downtown and on Ghent but not on other areas. Given that Mayor Alexander grew up in the Berkeley neighborhood, there is hope that he will focus on the needs of neglected areas of our city.
Another longstanding issue I hope to see addressed is the shortage of affordable places to live. Our city, in relying on real estate tax as an economic base, has systematically eliminated less tax lucrative affordable housing over the last four decades. I know that the city has plans to eliminate even more public housing. I hope Mayor Alexander will hold off doing so until every resident has an equally affordable place to live in our city. Norfolk is low wage city. We need subsidized and affordable housing. It should be mixed into existing neighborhoods rather than concentrated in one area. Penalizing and isolating people for being poor creates and perpetuates problems.
For those owning homes in Norfolk, exaggerated property value assessments and tax gouging cause many people to leave our city. Up until a few years ago, seniors on fixed income could have those taxes written off. This has changed, resulting in great difficulty and even the loss of homes. People who spent their lives here contributing to our city should not be treated this way. Though the City Treasurer has jurisdiction over this process, I hope that Mayor Alexander will encourage a restoration of leniency for elderly Norfolk homeowners struggling to get by in retirement.
Norfolk has a homeless population of people who fall through the economic cracks in our high rent city. Some are simply unemployed. Some are mentally ill. In the past, our city has vowed to end homelessness. It even has an Office to End Homelessness. What has been done away with have mostly been benches. What the homeless need, first and foremost, is a place to live.
Our city could best address this problem as has been done in Charlotte, N.C and other cities by providing homes. This could be done in Norfolk by purchasing and renovating a few older apartment buildings and providing apartments to homeless people. This should come with social services and not be a temporary or prison-like facility. In other cities, non-profits work with Community Service Boards to achieve this and we can too – with the mayors guidance.
Our city continues to be coated regularly in coal dust from the trains that run through our neighborhoods and from the Lambert’s Point coal terminal. Mayor Alexander stated in an interview in this magazine that he supports efforts to further mitigate coal dust emissions, saying “I grew up in Norfolk’s Berkeley neighborhood, where residents were affected by emissions and loud sounds from at least three major ship repair yards. I have always been very sensitive to the environmental concerns of all neighborhoods.” I hope he will follow through by requiring Norfolk Southern to enclose the coal dumpers at the Lambert’s point site and to cover the coal cars.
I have heard from several people who felt that regionalism was most important issue to them. The cluster of cities that make up the Tidewater area lose millions of dollars in funds for public transportation and roadwork as well as higher education and other needs due to a lack of cooperation. Our area is the economic powerhouse of the state but we consistently get shorted in the state funds we essentially pay for. Last January, former City Manager James Oliver was pushing non-profit “ReInvent Hampton Roads” to take this on, in order to capture some of the state funding promised by Governor McAuliffe to cities collaborating on economic development. Though this sounds good, it remains a private effort with limited capability.
We in Tidewater have been talking about regionalism for decades. As our regional economy has developed it has become more necessary. Light rail expansion is vital to this effort, further connecting us. It is the hope of many that our new mayor will meet with other regional city leaders to prioritize the growth of our region into one, gigantic metropolitan area with the present cities as boroughs. Our futures are inseparable and we need each other.
Though Mayor Fraim did much to improve our city, he pursued unpopular and unneeded projects like the downtown convention center project for which our city has spent over $100 million. He also ignored local voices and all but sold the old Waterside market place to the Cordish Companies to create a multiple chain restaurant Vegas-style phantasmagoria replete with rides and neon which will compete with local business. I hope Mayor Alexander will be both more practical and more responsive to citizen input.
Most of all, I hope Mayor Alexander will break with the secretive leadership of the past and that he will listen to and be open with the public, prioritizing the needs of citizens above the desires of real-estate developers.