Something Wrong in Buckroe Beach 
In the News . . .
Let’s go to Buckroe™
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Zimmerman Volk Associates, a real estate marketing firm out of New Jersey, hired by the City of Hampton identified a huge business market in Hampton’s Buckroe Beach.  They say Buckroe has potential for 1,950 new housing units with opportunity for some 335 to 395 new high end value condominiums, townhouses, and single family homes on the ten acres of land directly in front of Buckroe Beach City Park.  Naturally, that has city developers salivating. Over the years the City of Hampton has been acquiring land in front of the park.  Some of it was an amusement park. There was the ignoble social establishment of the Buckroe Surfside inn. A good part of the land is still open field that provides parking for the many beach visitors in the summer.  Now vacant of structure, the area is known as Lot B, and is slated for private development according to the City’s community development plans.  The plans purvey a  pristine upscale community architected on the principles of “New Urbanism” neatly nestled before a bayside park.  However, beneath the rosy facade of the community plan, lurks something definitely wrong.

Meet the Green Space Ladies.  They have a web-site at  Phylis Flanders, Sandra Canepa, and Trish Ferraro, long time Buckroe Beach residents see through the City’s new settlement plan, and have taken up the cause to challenge it.  They are proposing to keep Lot B public. The want it turned it into a greater Beach Park.  Some 11,000 Hampton residents have signed a petition supporting them.

Having been designated for public use back in 1619 by the Virginia Company of London, Buckroe Beach is one of the oldest recreational areas in Virginia.  The Green Space Ladies think it should remain so.  Trish Ferraro says “families in Hampton work hard to provide for their children, give them good education, teach them work ethic, and instill in them positive values... They don’t take fancy vacations, live in fancy houses, or drive fancy cars... They go to Buckroe to relax.”  Handing Lot B over to private residential development effectively takes this long time recreational area away from these people.  Local residents will be displaced by the proposed development.  The development will close the area off from the rest of Hampton’s residents as well.  Under the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act, a multi-state agreement, Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation is tasked to assure public beaches remain open and accessible to all Virginians and visitors, and not just residents living adjacent to the beach.

Review of the development plans for Buckroe quickly shows how very little parking will be made available, and certainly not near enough to accommodate the numbers of visitors that now come and enjoy the beach.  What little parking is designated on the plan is placed in front of  current homeowner’s properties, and carves into the existing park.  The parking vacuum is what inhibits residents and visitors who live outside the immediate beach area from accessing the beach.  More ominous is how land that has always been for public recreation in one form or another is now being subdivided into small private parcels for only a few affluent and fortunate to enjoy.  Whether the malice is mere oversight or subtle community cleansing we bear not to know.

The Green Space Ladies have fair reason for concern. Affluent “yuppie” settlement activity has already been taking place in the Buckroe area for some time.  Just north of Buckroe Beach lies Malo Beach with Salt Ponds right behind it.  A little more then a decade ago both Malo Beach and Salt Ponds were natural areas.  There was one lonely road straddling up the beach with a few summer houses on it.  Salt Ponds was surrounded by wetlands marsh.  Over the course of a few dark nights, the wetlands were suddenly “mitigated” thus making the area “legal” for development.  Salt Ponds was dredged, low land filled, green space disposed, and up sprang the gated Salt Ponds communities, and the Salt Ponds marina.  Up the once lonely road a new string of beach houses were built. Some of them were reputedly put on publicly owned land.  Quite conscientiously, no public parking was provided in any of the developments surrounding Malo Beach. Between the parking vacuum and the gates, the once public Malo beach became for all practical purposes private; reserved for those in the affluent gated community. Sinister one may say. Fitting that the last house on the once lonely road is owned by an entity named “Dark Star”.

It seems to be happening all over. Affluent settlements are popping up on every modest bank under the guise of new urbanism, and driving the long time local residents out.  Gates and fences go up to separate the social strata.  Norfolk’s Oceanview area is experiencing similar aggressive land redevelopment.  Houses are being taken by eminent domain only to be redeveloped not for public purpose, but for private gain.  When Oceanview developers attempted to take the Bay Oaks Park for private residential development, local citizens mustered and were able to surmount the aggression.  For now development in the small park has been tabled.  In Richmond, the city counsel was about to hand over to a developer a beautiful small park on the James River who was going to build luxury apartments on it.  The park was finally saved after a public outcry. With the placement of conservation easements on the land by public demand the park is secured for the future.  Conservation easements are legal instruments that a city or landowner may place on a property to permanently protect a property’s natural features. Yes indeed, Buckroe is not the only place suffering from developer blight.

Just a sign of the times one may say.  Afterall, population is increasing at over a two percent per year, and at that rate population doubles in thirty-five years.  More housing needs to be built, and naturally property values will rise.  However, more is going on. None of which promotes the well being of a larger mutual society. There is the requisitioning and transfer of desirable public land to the private realm for the benefit of a few. There is subsidization of private development with public funds and assets.  There is the neglect of what little public land remains. There is the stratification of society as the fortunate withdraw behind gates.  Neighbors are turning their backs on neighbors.

A new brave world is being thrust upon us by unilateral planning it seems.  The marketing firm Zimmerman Volk, and the architectural firm Urban Design Associates giving the City of Hampton direction are national in scope.  They also consult Norfolk, Portsmouth, as well as well as many other cities in Virginia and the rest of the United States.  The directions these firms give to Hampton are also being given to every other city around, and these directions are created by just a small select group of people.  Touting this new architectural trend called New Urbanism, the resulting city plans are unsurprisingly the same, and the issues confronting the local residents are so much alike.

One asks if there is something in the concept of New Urbanism that is causing the malice.  As any true environmentalist contends, given our population growth, if we are going to have a good green earth in the future, our present style of city development by suburban sprawl cannot continue.  New Urbanism is a response to sprawl.  It aims to create pleasant human scale walkable communities.  The concept’s principles include building around a discernable social center such as a park.  Well nit housing is placed within easy walking distance of the center. Small playgrounds for children are dispersed in between. Shops, also in easy walking distance are put around the perimeter.  The streets are made narrow to purposely slow down traffic.  They are shaded with trees, and nice pedestrian sidewalks, and bikeways are placed alongside. Driving is de-emphasized, and parking is relegated to the back of neighborhoods.  The concept does sound utopian. One would think every citizen would embrace it, and surely the environmentalists should love it.

Like so many other things conjured up in the back halls of academia in the 1960s, in many cases New Urbanism is not working out in practice. People are upset, and most upset are the environmentalists.  New Urbanism in practice has been getting subverted. It comes to serve as an excuse for aggressive land development and redevelopment.  Building around a park gets translated into building in a park. Well nit housing turns into packing people together for greater real estate return.  De-emphasis on driving turns into no need to provide parking spaces in cities that depend on autos.  Focus into a discernable center becomes turning one’s back on the rest of the city. Quite possibly though the greatest aversion to New Urbanism is the very essence of urbanization itself.  What many people desire is not urban space, but green open space.

The Green Space Ladies envision cultivating Lot B as a park, professionally designed, around which pleasant shops, cafes, and adequate parking are dispersed; all making a social center for quaint residential neighborhoods.  They also place emphasis on making the area  green, open, and accessible to the whole city and everyone to enjoy.  This vision appears more consistent with the New Urban concept then what the city is soliciting. The prestigious environmental group, the Sierra Club, thus is giving their support to the Green Space Ladies.

City planners say their plans for Buckroe are still in the concept phase. They are still open for reassessment.  With the BRAC commission’s decision last year to close Fort Monroe, the Hampton City Planning Commission recommended to Hampton City Council to hold Buckroe Beach planning and development in suspense until a conceptual use plan for the fort is put forth.  The northern limit of Fort Monroe extends to Buckroe Beach.  Also to this writer’s knowledge, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation has yet to get involved with giving their decision on the Buckroe Beach development initiative.  Neither has the city’s own Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee rendered its opinion.  Whether environmental impact studies have been conducted by all the appropriate regulating authorities is not clear either.  The Green Space Ladies are asking for a city wide vote on the development plan.  The Code of Virginia says a body may not act as a housing authority until a majority of qualified voters elect they may do so.  Meanwhile, Buckroe developers are not waiting around for any due process.  They are not about to willingly let city planners, state bureaucrats, or Green Space Ladies get in the way of their multi-million dollar plans.  Right now they have the ears of at least the male members of Hampton City Counsel, and are about to upset four hundred years of Virginia tradition. Roads have been closed, and dirt is being turned over in Lot B. City counsel approved pushing a road through Lot B just this past January in support upcoming private development. Land is being rezoned without clear public knowledge. Long time residents in an upscale trailer park next to Lot B are being told to displace themselves to make way for condos by this fall in 2006.

Mrs. Angela Leary of the Hampton City Counsel introduced a motion for the counsel to consider a non-binding referendum for the voting public to express their opinion on the fate of the Buckroe land.  Her male counterparts quickly rejected her motion.  Before the many numbers of concerned citizens in the public hearing, Mr. Charles Sapp blatantly stated a public referendum would mean nothing to him. He told the citizens before him who favor a park “ you folks are only second to the NRA in your blaster campaign.” Dr. Turner Spencer said a city park is not an issue to be put before the public, and Mr. Randy Gilliland said the referendum is premature being that the Buckroe plan is on hold pending the Fort Monroe plans although construction activity on the Buckroe lot is already taking place.

With such unsympathetic response by the majority of city counsel, one wants to write their congressional representative. The representative for the second district in which Buckroe Beach and most of Hampton is the honorable Thelma Drake. Mrs. Drake recently opened up a new office in Hampton’s City hall building on the eighth floor, and is getting involved with the Fort Monroe redevelopment. She says she wants to ensure any redevelopment strategy for the Fort Monroe property should obtain the “highest and best use while maintaining its historical integrity”. Mrs. Drake was a real estate agent working for RE/MAX Allegiance; a major national real estate corporation based in Denver Colorado. As a member of Norfolk’s East Oceanview, Northside, and Bayside Civic Leagues, and a member of the Norfolk Mayor’s task force on Oceanview, she was very influential in the developing the private settlement blocks along the Oceanview beachfront. Mrs. Drake is also on record for voting pro-business over ninety percent of the time. She is up for re-election this November.

In all fairness though, Mr. Gilliland has reconsidered his position and is now proposing that the plans for Buckroe be reconsidered, and though Developers have been cast as the villains in this story, many people do like the new upscale settlements they build. First the people living there. Exclusivity sells, and for many individuals who can afford it that is an ego trip. Some people just driving by also prefer the neatly kept gate fronts. . They favor them over the look of aging neighborhoods. As for Lot B, whether it becomes park or condos, there are some who do not really care. They just want something other then empty lot there. The developers are represented through the Buckroe Civic Association. Former association president Amy Hobbs is a key development advocate. Older neighborhoods do have to be upgraded from time to time for cities to maintain their vitality, and that is for the developers to do. Private developers are not necessarily a lot of evildoers. Much of the animosity probably has to do with details, and how the business is being done.

The lure of money has an appeal that draws all but the most conscientious politicians, planners, developers, and even residents into its faust.  I recently attended a city planning meeting in which I asked what will happen to those people in the trailer park next to Lot B.  There were shoulder shrugs all about the room. One man gestured with his thumb that they should “take a hike.”  ...So much for being neighborly.

Buckroe Beach is a jewel on the Bay. Misfortunate it is that there is so much contention over it as good things are meant to be shared.  One must admit that development in Buckroe has up to now been quite mean-spirited to those already living there.  Obviously, the development is not being done for them. Neither does the development appear to be for Hampton and the rest of the state residents at large. Weather the development is even for “yuppies” is also for preponderance.  Quite possibly the development is nothing more then sheer land speculation, and an opportunity for building contractors to take city money.  Once the money is taken, and the housing is built, the housing may be merely bought and sold like so many shares of company stock.  All the while the housing might remain empty.  Can city planners amend their plan, and grapple hold of a development about to run away? They are a smart lot.  Can the Green Space Ladies be appeased? They are feisty, and wisdom holds for men to keep the ladies in the community happy. Can the city’s community plan truly become a roadmap for Buckroe and the rest of Hampton, or will it become a roadmap to nowhere, or will it be roadmap who cares? Good for all is to keep in mind that law from which much else should come; love thy neighbor as thyself. Beautiful would be if the gates now closing out communities are opened, the walls torn down for neighbor to see neighbor, and realize that neighbors can indeed be friends.

An edited verision of the following article appeared in The Southern (( i )), A project of Hampton Roads Independent Media Coalition, March 2006