Work Program Architects led the way in Norfolk’s pandemic recovery effort, called OpenNorfolk, aimed at reaching the most vulnerable people and businesses in their neighborhoods and getting them up and running. It was challenging in the face of ever-changing Executive Orders from the Governor’s office related to swings in Covid 19 case numbers. It took a whole team of designers, collaborators, politicians, and health officials to embrace a culture of getting to “YES” quickly. OpenNorfolk’s goal was “Healthy Businesses Together, Healthy Transportation, Healthy Creative Culture and Recreation Opportunities.”
OpenNorfolk had city-wide positive benefits that aided in pandemic relief and recovery in three areas:
Priority #1 was relief and recovery for Norfolk’s restaurants and small businesses. The team designed custom signage for physical distancing and interpreted the Governor’s Executive Orders in an illustrated, easy-to-understand set of guidelines. WPA designed OpenNorfolk signs, and volunteers distributed them to every local restaurant in the city — more than 500. Signs mandated the use of masks and showed fun, alternative ways to greet friends without a handshake. Signs describing symptoms and with reminders to wear masks and distance were translated into Spanish and Mandarin Chinese in order to reach the full community. Volunteers also chalk-painted distancing reminders in business corridors.
The OpenNorfolk team built more than 20,000SF of custom parklets on pedestrian focused, commercial streets in order to provide safe, ADA compliant outdoor dining. The team set up outdoor dining with planters, handmade stanchions, ropes, pennants and string lights in parking lots, taking places for cars and turning them into places for people. The team delivered over $100,000 of outdoor patio furniture to restaurants in need. As parking spaces gave way to outdoor dining, the team initiated four significant road diets, slowing traffic from an average of 47 miles per hour to 25 miles per hour. Printable signage and blanket permitting was provided for residents to close their own neighborhood streets for recreation, learning, arts and cultural activities.
In preparation for winter, the team worked with the Building Official, the Fire Marshal and the City’s right-of-way permitting department to design more permanent outdoor dining guidelines. A series of virtual meetings educated restaurant and brewery owners on fire code and the importance of safety when mixing tents, heaters, and fire pits. The team ordered and distributed 208 electric heaters (no greenhouse gasses) and provided an on-call team of electricians and builders who were ready to help. Finally, the team designed permanent Streateries, and city-wide Streateries guidelines, including guidelines for off-the-shelf, DIY, or custom build instructions.
Among OpenNorfolk’s most rewarding facets were four Neighborhood Spots, each with a unique “personality,” reflecting their community. In response to the drop in pandemic related tax revenue, over 500 City employees were furloughed and $40 million was cut from the budget. Recreation Centers and Public Libraries were closed. The team designed and built two pop-up parks in just one week. By hiring from within the community, the program attracted over $150,000 of volunteer labor and resulted in three fully programmed parks that paired the arts with community markets, support for entrepreneurs, public health and educational support (while schools were closed). The neighborhood spots gave local arts organizations a place to both lift the spirits of the community and keep talented artists and musicians employed. Dozens of businesses were launched, giving people new hope that they could control their own successful future. OpenNorfolk led with empathy, empowered people, and gave a much-needed nudge of support, delivering on a vision of prosperity and abundance for all.
OpenNorfolk led the region as the only city with a coordinated effort to get the community back on its feet after an extended lockdown. Norfolk’s effort was recognized with a national grant from DoorDash, selected by Virginia’s Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association. In addition to the City, WPA teamed with Yard + Co., and Team Better Block.
Other significant results:
Unique solutions for neighborhood identity included a partnership with the Bloomberg Foundation and Black artists, including Mensah Bey, who created the street mural at 5 Points as part of a Bloomberg Grant, and Clayton Singleton, creator of a mural at Purpose Park (Teens With a Purpose). Teens lead by ChaVonne also created murals at Purpose Park. Murals incorporated African symbolism at a time when social justice issues and the Black Lives Matter protests predominated headlines this summer. Neighborhood Spots were located in communities where libraries and recreation centers were shuttered by budget cuts.
Close attention was paid to issues of handicapped accessibility, pedestrian safety and environmental considerations, such as the ability to dismantle Streateries in 1-2 hours in the case of a strong Nor’easter or hurricane.
“I am amazed at how OpenNorfolk has brought our neighborhood together in a space where most people probably wouldn’t have thought community gatherings would ever happen. From Food Truck Fridays to Plant Swaps and support from our local food bank with gifts of produce, our neighborhood has been able to gather, eat, laugh, shop, and mingle during a time when relying on our community is needed most. Thanks to OpenNorfolk’s Plant Swap (where I bought my first Monstera plant), I started building plant stands, which has grown into my own small business fueled by the rapidly growing local plant communities
— RENEE DEWEY, REDEW DESIGN
“The key to OpenNorfolk has been the agility of breaking down barriers to both rapid ideation and rapid implementation by our commitment to get to “YES we can” throughout the entirety of Norfolk. The whole of government, whole of community approach was essential to success.”
— GEORGE M. HOMEWOOD, FAICP CFM
Director of City Planning, City of Norfolk