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Port Warwick: New Urbanism in Newport News, Virginia

Susan Smith Hogue
Solid Waste Administrator (retired)
Department of Public Works
City of Newport News, Virginia

In the fall of 2000, developer Bobby Freeman approached the City of Newport News with a proposal to build a mixed-use development that would encompass single-family homes, duplexes, condos, live/work units, shops and apartments, all in a single 147-acre parcel. Mr. Freeman's vision was an upscale new urbanist development in the center of an urban, mostly blue collar, city. The proposed name for this development was Port Warwick after a fictional town in a novel by Newport News-born Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Styron.

Freeman's vision included a mixture of businesses, homes, and public places that would "accommodate people instead of the automobile." The master plan included a large park with a pavilion that provides a place for community gatherings, band concerts and performances. Four smaller parks for gathering and passive activities were to be sited throughout the development and large sculptures would be showcased in various locations. Services such as mail delivery and garbage collection would be provided at the rear of the property accessed by alleys. Narrow streets, small lots, houses with porches or stoops, and sidewalks would promote neighborhood interaction. Houses, businesses, condos and apartments would have a cohesive exterior design to further the feel of a small town.

In short, Port Warwick would fit the description of New Urbanism to a tee. New Urbanism:

"Promotes the creation and restoration of diverse, walkable, compact communities, composed of the same components as conventional development, but assembled in a more integrated fashion, in the form of complete communities."

Despite the somewhat radical departure from development standards, the City Council embraced the concept and encouraged city departments to amend their ordinances and requirements where possible to enable Port Warwick to become a reality. Significant amendments include:

  • Amendment of the Zoning Ordinance to establish a neo-traditional overlay district (required the site to be at least 100 acres)
  • Amendment of the Site Development and Subdivision Ordinances to permit variations associated with neo-traditional overlays
  • Acceptance of operational take-over and maintenance by the City of non-standard streets, streetlights and street signs.

Establishing a neo-traditional overlay district and amending the Site Development Ordinance provided a legal basis for deviation from normal zoning ordinances and allowed the Director of Engineering to approve design deviations that included narrower streets, zero lot line setbacks, perpendicular parking and lesser width rights-of-way.

The design plan incorporated innovations such as:

  • Intersection bump-outs for shorter pedestrian crossing distances
  • Circular traffic patterns with looping roads, roundabouts and alleyways
  • Driveways to residential and live/work units in the rear
  • Common area parking around the live/work units
  • Internal circulation with no dead ends, cul-de-sacs
  • Pedestrian scale lighting
  • Traffic-calming roundabouts featuring large sculptures

Several operational issues surfaced as a result of these changes. Who would replace and maintain the non-standard lighting fixtures and bulbs? Who would be responsible for non-standard street sign replacement and maintenance? How would large municipal vehicles (school buses, fire and emergency vehicles, and garbage collection vehicles) navigate the narrow roads, alleys and reduced turning radii at intersections? Who would provide waste collection service for the live/work units (a new category of development) since the city only services residential properties?

A meeting was held in April 2001 with the developer, city officials and department representatives to provide the city input on operational issues. As a result it was determined that the city's Engineering Department would maintain an inventory of the non-standard street lights, bulbs and signs. For economy of scale, the Engineering Department has since adopted these items for use in other city projects.

Of prime importance to the Public Works Department were the street and alley widths, as well as curve radii at intersections and roundabouts. Unless adjustments could be made to the master plan, many large municipal vehicles such as garbage, bulk waste and recycling trucks, as well as fire trucks and school buses, could not operate within the development. Subsequent to that meeting the Solid Waste Administrator and Operations Superintendent for collections met with the engineering firm for Port Warwick and provided minimum specifications for collection vehicle access. Affected streets and intersections were amended to accommodate those requirements and the project moved full speed ahead, with the construction beginning almost at once.

A separate issue arose regarding solid waste collection of the hybrid live/work units. The city ceased collection of all but residential waste in 1985 and the hybrids seemed "neither fish nor fowl." A proposed ordinance has been drafted to allow these hybrids zoned R-9 (a mixed-use zoning district) to receive split waste collection. The developer has stepped in to provide a central dumpster for the business waste, and once an amended ordinance is adopted the city will provide separate collection services to the "live" portion of the units.

  Styron Square Pavilion

As an aside, Mr. Styron, the author of Sophie's Choice and Nat Turner's Rebellion, graciously accepted the invitation to name the streets within Port Warwick and named them in honor of favorite authors, including T. S. Eliot, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman and William Faulkner. The large park with the pavilion is named Styron Square in his honor.

A good working relationship between the developer and the city is crucial to making a new urbanist development possible. These developments may be called Livable, New Urbanist, Urban Village, Transit Oriented Development, Pedestrian Pocket Community, or Neo-traditional Development, but all require changes in mindset from "this is the way things have always been done" to "what can be done to make this work?" City fathers must be open to change and willing to let go of many locally accepted practices for development. Equally as important, city departments must be involved in the process in the earliest stages rather than just react to plans as they are developed.

Because of the willingness to embrace change, the Newport News City Council made it possible to enjoy the ambiance of a small town within an urban city of 180,000 residents. Without leaving the development, residents can walk to their choice of four restaurants, have a cappuccino, take karate or yoga lessons, visit an art gallery, and shop two large boutiques. Andy and Opie would approve.

Susan Smith Hogue can be reached at (757) 269-2707 or dbryant@nngov.com. A special thank-you goes to John Kaoudis and John Edwards of the Department of Engineering who contributed information and visuals for this article.