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Norfolk Has A Plan To Save Itself From Rising Seas. For Many, It’s A $2.7 Billion Mystery

From Left: Sharon Endrick, President of the Campostella Civic League, and Kim Sudderth, a community activist, at the edge of the Elizabeth River under the Berkley Bridge with the skyline of the City of Norfolk Friday afternoon, December 15, 2023. Residents of the Southside neighborhoods were furious to learn their communities, with predominantly Black populations, would not get the same floodwall protections as downtown Norfolk.
From Left: Sharon Endrick, President of the Campostella Civic League, and Kim Sudderth, a community activist, at the edge of the Elizabeth River under the Berkley Bridge with the skyline of the City of Norfolk Friday afternoon, December 15, 2023. Residents of the Southside neighborhoods were furious to learn their communities, with predominantly Black populations, would not get the same floodwall protections as downtown Norfolk.


The meetings to discuss Norfolk’s $2.7 billion storm risk plan were on opposite sides of the Elizabeth River, a month apart in March and April 2023.

The first gathered leaders of some of the city’s poorest Black neighborhoods on the south side, people who consider themselves afterthoughts often ignored by city leaders focused on boosting downtown. The second, smaller session downtown drew together power brokers accustomed to being part of the inner circle, including a developer, attorneys and a former mayor.

The two groups at opposite ends of the political and economic hierarchy each felt betrayed by a lack of transparency from federal and city officials about the largest infrastructure project in Norfolk’s history, one that will dramatically transform the city.

“Basically, the project was going forward really without our knowledge,” said Lawrence Brown, president of the Campostella Heights Civic League who attended the Southside meeting.

Tim Faulkner, chief executive officer of the Breeden Company, which develops residential and commercial projects throughout the state, also felt kept in the dark. He did not realize that agreeing to the plan obligated the city to a 35% share of the cost. Or that a luxury apartment complex his firm built would be unprotected on the water side of a proposed floodwall. “I had not been exposed to those details,” he said.

Norfolk, where the land is sinking and seas are rising faster than anywhere else on the Atlantic coast, is the first city in the U.S. to move forward with a coastal storm risk management plan under a 2015 Army Corps of Engineers strategy. The goal is to prevent damage to vulnerable waterfronts before a major storm strikes, a policy change from building protective infrastructure after disasters.

Proponents of the plan say it will protect Norfolk from the existential threat posed by a major storm or hurricane, preventing the kind of disaster Katrina caused to New Orleans in 2005. But it comes with financial and opportunity costs. And many questions. Will the city’s nearly $1 billion share of the project delay or cancel other stormwater, school, road and infrastructure projects? Will the General Assembly commit to funding half the city’s share, signaling support for future big-budget climate projects in other Virginia localities? What will be the effect on homeowners? Though the city has requested changes, the present plan includes involuntary buyouts and voluntary raisings of some threatened homes.

Photo by city of Norfolk 

The map presented at public meetings showed the general path of the proposed, $2.7 billion floodwall project. But more details and alternate plans were not publicly discussed, according to city and Corps documents obtained by VCIJ at WHRO. If the city does not build a wall, the map shows that by 2075 all but a small sliver of the city would be flooded by a major storm. Even with barriers, however, some neighborhoods would be inundated.

Under the Norfolk plan drafted by the Army Corps and finalized in early 2019, 8 miles of concrete floodwalls will snake along the Elizabeth River waterfront and Little Creek in East Ocean View, sometimes blocking views of the water. Other areas, where property values didn’t justify such expensive infrastructure, may get softer solutions such as shorelines planted with grasses. Norfolk’s increasingly frequent flooding from high tides and intense rainstorms will not be addressed by the plan.

Without the project, the 2019 Corps plan estimated that all but a sliver of the city’s interior would be at risk for flooding from a major storm by 2075. With the project, the plan says Norfolk will reap annual net benefits of $122 million from reduced damage to businesses, homes and critical infrastructure, including health care facilities. The plan does not cover Norfolk Naval Station because it was not part of the authorization, although the Navy did participate in stakeholder meetings.

Other East Coast localities have rejected Corps proposals because of the size and structure of the plans. A $52 billion storm risk proposal for New York and New Jersey was recently dismissed by state leaders who said the plan only focused on storm surge; the Corps was sent back to the drawing board to create a comprehensive plan that protects against tidal and river flooding, heavy rainfall, groundwater emergence, erosion and sea level rise in addition to storm surge.

Miami–Dade County rebuffed a $5 billion plan after renderings commissioned by the city’s downtown development agency showed 20-foot-high floodwalls blocking waterfront views. The Norfolk district office of the Army Corps, which designed that plan, agreed to spend up to $8.2 million, at no cost to the county, for a new study addressing requests for more nature-based solutions and fewer walls.

Those kinds of details in Norfolk — the height of the walls, their planned paths and their effect on waterfront views — were not part of broad-brush public presentations leading up to the April vote committing the city to fund $931 million of the project. Norfolk officials repeatedly said in interviews and public meetings that the details were omitted because the designs weren’t final and site work has not begun in later phases.

“It’s so risky telling people this is what it’s gonna look like,” Norfolk City Manager Pat Roberts said in a September interview. “There’s so much that could change.”

Without those key details, there was little public discussion or news coverage in Norfolk, unlike in other cities. Some stakeholders and civic leaders later said details about the height of the walls and their path would have raised questions and concerns.

“Miami pushed back,” said Mary-Carson Stiff, the new executive director of Norfolk-based Wetlands Watch. “We rolled over.”

While Norfolk has benefited from elbowing to the front of the federal funding line, it also has faced the challenges of blazing the trail. More than 2,000 documents and emails obtained through public records requests by the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO and interviews with nearly 30 sources over the past 15 months provide a look at how the Norfolk City Council got to “yes” while other localities rejected similar proposals.

Notes and emails show an understaffed city’s Resilience Office and Corps staffers grappling with problems in the design but not communicating key details to neighborhood and business stakeholders. At the same time, city leaders pushed for a partnership agreement with the Corps that would start federal funds flowing.

The Congressionally-authorized plan requires massive concrete walls along the waterfront from the Berkley Bridge through downtown and Freemason to West Ghent, according to conceptual maps acquired through public records requests. They will be 16.5 feet above a baseline, meaning roughly 5 feet to 16.5 feet or more above the ground. Along the Elizabeth River, they will be 24 feet wide at the base with a 55-foot easement, requiring real estate acquisitions and easement agreements with property owners.

A mile-long surge barrier will stretch across the Lafayette River from Norfolk International Terminals to Lamberts Point. It will rise 15 feet above the water with a main gate in the shipping channel and several side gates. The conceptual design also shows two floodwalls and a surge barrier across Little Creek protecting East Ocean View. Ten pump stations will drain the bathtub created by the walls.

The plan’s first phase of construction from the Berkley Bridge by Harbor Park to Chesterfield Heights begins in 2025. The project is scheduled for completion in 2032.

City officials repeatedly said in interviews and public forums that design changes can be made. But potential changes are limited; the partnership agreement approved by the city locks in the basics of the plan.

A Corps spokesman confirmed that any major changes to the plan’s design would trigger a new study and cost-benefit analysis. It would also require congressional approval for any additional funding. Norfolk can request changes not justified by the cost-benefit analysis, but the city would have to pay the cost.

Congress authorized federal funding for Norfolk’s storm risk project in January 2022 as part of President Joe Biden’s bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Four months later, the Norfolk City Council began publicly discussing the Corps plan. At a May 2022 meeting, Mayor Kenneth Alexander raised questions about the plan’s lack of floodwalls for the Southside neighborhoods. “I think we need to be very open and very clear (if) that’s the policy direction we want to go in,” he said. “I think that’s a conversation that we need to have in this council if there’s not going to be any structural protection for the Southside.”

Alexander and other council members were also concerned about a proposed levee along Town Point Park blocking views. He suggested closing a portion of Waterside Drive to create an elevated park. “It’s got to look attractive,” added Courtney Doyle, a council member. “We cannot lose the beauty of our waterfront downtown or, frankly, anywhere in the city.”

In an interview after the meeting, Doyle said she wanted more information than just what the first downtown phase would look like. “I’d like to see what the actual true designs look like, in greater detail,” she said.

But details such as wall size and its path in other neighborhoods were not part of future presentations to the council. Norfolk’s Chief Resilience Officer Kyle Spencer said in interviews and at public forums that the details were not included because the designs were only 10% complete.

Still, proponents pressed for approval to the partnership agreement with the Corps because it would unlock $400 million in federal funding to begin construction.

“We were thinking that the money will be a few years down the road, we’ve got to get ready for it,” Roberts, the city manager, said in a recent interview. “And then within 60 days, early 2022, it was like, we might get all the money right now. So (the timing) did change very rapidly.”

Community outreach was left to representatives from Norfolk’s Office of Resilience, including Spencer, who worked with the city’s computer mapping system, and Matt Simons, who is a planner.

The staff of two was already strapped. They were neck-deep in the $120 million, yearslong Ohio Creek watershed resilience project protecting 450 homes and 360 public housing units in Chesterfield Heights and Grandy Village. Outreach there with residents was extensive. Spencer went to 35 to 40 meetings in those neighborhoods over five years discussing the plans with residents, he said.

The public presentations made by Spencer and Simons about the multibillion-dollar storm risk project from March 2022 through April 2023 varied little from group to group. They typically featured slides with a broad overview of the plan, a map of storm flooding by 2075 with and without the walls, flyover views, a timeline and illustrations of the types of protections.

PowerPoint slides obtained through records requests show that the details requested by council member Doyle weren’t in the roughly 20 meetings held with civic leagues, environmental groups and stakeholders such as the Greater Norfolk Corporation and Downtown Norfolk Council.

Spencer and Simons met with some community groups but did not go to civic leagues in other neighborhoods that would be affected by the project. “We typically go where people ask us to be put on the agenda,” Spencer said when asked why there had been no earlier meeting with Southside leaders.

Civic leagues in the Willoughby and Ingleside neighborhoods, which will not get barriers under the plan and are more vulnerable than the Southside, were not visited by city representatives before the final council vote in April, according to city records. Only house raisings and natural solutions are planned for those areas.

A Corps map showing the plan’s protection from a hurricane or major storm indicates that those neighborhoods could be inundated while wealthier areas of downtown and the west side would remain dry.

The two meetings in the Southside and downtown earlier this year illustrate the lack of transparency and outreach about the plan in the months leading up to the City Council vote.

At the March 7 Southside meeting, about 50 residents and civic leaders from Campostella, Berkley and Campostella Heights grew heated when a city staffer told them they were not getting the floodwalls and barriers promised to wealthier areas across the water because their homes weren’t valuable enough. Instead, they were promised grasses and oyster reefs to blunt the storm surge. More than 130 houses would be raised above streets predicted to be inundated by flooding, according to a PowerPoint presentation shown privately to council members and obtained with a records request.

“Fortunately for us, they got caught,” Brown, the Campostella Heights Civic League president, said recently, adding that he supports the project overall. “I believe 100% they felt like they were gonna get exactly what they had gotten from other communities where nobody really raised any questions because nobody really understood (the plan).”

Kim Sudderth, a Southside activist and member of the Planning Commission who is Black, grew angrier as that meeting went on. She lives in a 120-year-old house in Berkley, and knows the neighborhood’s history. "Here we are," she said in an interview the day after the meeting, "learning that our homes, our schools, our community isn't worthy of protection."

The Southside fury stunned city officials. “I have found myself losing a bit of sleep tonight,” Simons, the resilience office staffer who made the presentation, wrote to council member John “JP” Paige the next morning in an email. “The feedback received yesterday was vital. The Southside residents clearly want more, not just whatever’s leftover.”

Simons added: “I initially viewed the project as a net positive for the community. However, the fact of the matter is, it pales in comparison to the flood solutions proposed by the Army Corps to other communities just across the Elizabeth River. The Southside residents know that’s true. I know that’s true.”

The city and the Corps moved to quell the objections, holding a hastily arranged meeting on March 31 with neighborhood leaders followed by a bigger session on April 5 where Col. Brian Hallberg, commander of the Army Corps’ Norfolk office, Alexander and others promised to work toward getting Southside floodwalls included in the plan.

City and Corps officials told neighborhood leaders that they should have done outreach sooner, according to a consultant’s report obtained through a public records request. Since the feasibility study had been completed, they added, a new focus by the Biden administration required analyzing the social effects that might support floodwalls for the neighborhoods. But they emphasized it would take years to study and there were no guarantees the Southside would get floodwalls.

What they didn’t tell residents is the plan still included involuntary buyouts of 55 neighborhood homes, a potentially explosive issue. They had been voluntary when the feasibility study was completed in late 2018, but the Corps policy had changed to require forced acquisitions, which had proved controversial elsewhere.

“Concern is that the public will not take this well as recently demonstrated in South Louisiana if mandatory buy-outs are required,” a Corps engineer Kristin Mazur, the Corps’s point person on the project wrote to Simons and Spencer in August 2022, according to an email obtained through a records request.

She promised a study exploring whether the planned buyouts could be changed to raising homes and filling basements.

A day after the April 5 Southside meeting, an unlikely coalition gathered at 150 W. Main St. in the 21st-floor conference room of the powerhouse law firm Kaufman & Canoles overlooking the Elizabeth River. They, too, were upset that they had not been consulted on the plan.

Leading the downtown seminar was William “Skip” Stiles, then the head of Wetlands Watch, an environmental group not typically invited to such backroom sessions. Stiles had recently written a guest newspaper column calling for a pause in approving the project until the city answered questions about its financing and the failure to address flooding from rising tides and intensifying rainstorms.

The small gathering included Faulkner, a prominent developer with a pending downtown waterfront project; Vincent J. Mastracco Jr., a powerful behind-the-scenes lawyer and Kaufman partner; Mary Miller, head of the Downtown Norfolk Council business group; Paul Fraim, a former mayor; and a few others. They had business interests that would be affected by the project.

Faulkner’s firm in 2021 and 2022 built The Lofts, a $70 million, 258-unit luxury apartment complex south of Front Street on the waterfront. The company worked closely with the city resilience office during design in the two years prior to construction and during building, raising the building 11 feet and adding other flood protections, Faulkner said. But there was no discussion of a proposed wall down Front Street or that the apartment complex would be outside of it. “No one ever brought up a floodwall to my construction team,” he added.

Faulkner and others at the meeting also were concerned about the cost of a project offering protection only against storm surges and not the regular flooding from heavy rains and high tides. They worried about the financial burden on the city and the opportunity cost of focusing on the plan when the city had so many pressing capital improvement needs. And, like some City Council members, the group worried about the effect of walls as high as 16.5 feet along the Elizabeth River.

In a lengthy interview, Faulkner criticized the lack of outreach by the city. He wants more coordination between efforts to stop the different kinds of flooding from tides, rain and storm surges.

“There was and, in my opinion, there still is a communication gap in order to get all the stakeholders in alignment,” he said, adding that he supports the project but wants changes. “None of us are asking for perfection or getting 100% agreement and consensus on every detail of the plan. But I think there is an obligation of the city to get buy-in from the constituency.”

As city leaders pushed to finalize an agreement with the Army Corps, documents obtained during a records request show that public hearings on the project omitted details of the plans that community members later said would have caused concern.

For example, in the weeks before a March presentation to the Downtown Norfolk Council, documents show that city and Corps staff discussed draft maps of the wall running along Boush Street through College Place past Nauticus along Botetourt across the Hague at the Brambleton Avenue bridge and then down Front Street to Fort Norfolk before ending at the Lamberts Point docks. The city and Corps staff working on the project shared illustrations showing the proposed wall height throughout. They discussed making changes in the wall’s alignment by a few blocks in certain places.

But those maps, showing the wall’s path through scores of properties, were not shown to business leaders at the Downtown Norfolk Council meeting.

“There’s information, but there’s not enough information for people to even fully understand, I think, (something) like opportunity costs and what this does to downtown,” said Miller, adding that the business council’s board has not taken a position on the plan. “There’s recognition that we’ve got to deal with storm surge and we’ve got to deal with recurrent flooding. But how does all that get worked out?”

The business leaders and environmentalists raised another question in their April discussion: What projects will the city have to sacrifice or postpone to pay its nearly $1 billion share of the project?

The city has a long list of big-ticket capital improvement projects. For example, the city planned to spend $19 million annually to upgrade its stormwater system and recently earmarked more than $160 million to build a new Maury High School and $10 million to replenish Ocean View beach with sand. Last year, the city shelved a plan to renovate Chrysler Hall when the estimated cost soared to $90 million. At the time, then-City Manager Larry “Chip” Filer cited the city’s contribution to the storm risk project saying it “forced us to rethink our plans.”

Roberts, the current city manager, declined to identify specific capital projects that may be delayed or canceled because of the city’s financial commitment to the storm risk project.

“I don’t know there’s a good answer to that other than there’s so many wants, needs and desires that don’t get funded every year because they were not deemed to be the priority,” he said.

Other presentations to civic leagues also glossed over potential flashpoints, according to documents. The initial plan for the East Ocean View phase, scheduled to begin construction in 2026, calls for floodwalls down Pretty Lake Avenue, along the Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek–Fort Story boundary and then down East Little Creek Road.

Norfolk and Army Corps staffers noted that a luxury apartment complex for seniors was being developed on the proposed floodwall site on Pretty Lake Avenue in East Ocean View, according to an agenda for a January 2023 workshop. “What does (the) City need to do to prevent conflicts w/future development?” it asked.

Three months later, the resilience office gave a broad overview of the project to the East Ocean View Civic League. The presentation did not include the potential conflict between the new development and the path of the floodwall, said Steve Chamberlin, the civic league president. After being shown a map by VCIJ, Chamberlin said: “All of that is news to me. Had they shared this map with us, I’m sure there would have been questions.”

After the March controversy over plans for the Southside, Spencer and Simons met privately with two City Council members at a time — labeled as “2x2” meetings in emails — avoiding public meeting requirements. The staffers updated each council member with a 23-slide presentation promoting the plan.

In the wake of the protests from Southside residents and pressure from downtown business leaders, the City Council vote on the plan was postponed to late April.

On April 25, the council unanimously approved, without discussion, a partnership agreement with the Army Corps that incorporated a long list of conditions to address both Southside and downtown concerns. The city pledged to request that the Corps reconsider and build barriers protecting the Southside, something that could require a new study and congressional funding. The city also promised to request and secure state funding to pay half the city’s share over 10 years, more than $450 million. The General Assembly has yet to earmark that money. On Friday, Gov. Glenn Youngkin released his proposed budget, which included nearly $74 million supporting the storm risk plan.

Roberts, the city manager, said the Corps has been willing to change designs, citing talks about the kinds of barriers along Waterside.

“I see an incredible amount of flexibility on the part of the Corps when we put a new idea on the table,” he said, adding that he expected that to continue as the project moves into later phases.

A month after Norfolk leaders celebrated their partnership agreement with the Army Corps, Spencer of the Norfolk Office of Resilience sent a letter to the Norfolk district office of the Corps seeking storm barriers for the Berkley, Campostella and Campostella Heights communities.

The letter also included a request to change planned forced acquisitions to house raisings – a move that would affect 15 homes in Willoughby, six homes in Elizabeth Park, and those 55 homes on the Southside.

Those politically-charged buyouts had never been discussed with residents by city or Corps representatives.

The Corps declined to provide the study on acquisitions promised last year, saying it had not been completed and was exempt from public disclosure.

Reach Jim Morrison at jimmorrison721@gmail.com.