Norfolk could be getting one of its defining pieces of adaptive reuse if the City Council approves plans to let a church property on the Hague become a Champion micr0brewery.
It is the kind of project that Visit Norfolk will be promoting on the covers of its brochures within two years of the brewery opening. It will both enhance a special place that is well worth saving, and be another jewel in Norfolk’s near-blingy crown of breweries.
“We’re not going to change a thing,” said one of the prospective developers of the project, Christopher E. Todd, who is clearly quite smitten with the space. “Not going to change a door knob.”
You might know the Unitarian Church at 739 Yarmouth Street because it is one of the first national poster children for sea level rise impacting real estate in a negative way. It is featured in this USA Today article, “Rising sea levels torment Norfolk, Va., and coastal U.S.” It is featured in this New York Times article, “When Rising Seas Transform Risk Into Certainty.” Locally, the Pilot identified it in its headline as being “flood prone.”
I honestly never thought this property would sell. I was heartbroken for the congregation, a generous, welcoming lot. When news in the Pilot broke about this project, I was stoked.
“Quite frankly, (this property) is not zoned to be a church right now,” said Todd, who is from Norfolk. He plans to purchase the space with Craig Reilly, and then lease it to Charlottesville’s Champion Brewery Company. “We looked at this property and thought, ‘This is such a cool space.'”
As more people stay inside, connecting via the Internet, the physical structures that draw us out into fleshy coexistence become even more important. Neighborhood micro-breweries serve a role not unlike churches: they call us together to common cause. Just as any two men sitting next to each other in a pew are inherently equals, so is true of ball stools.
Plus, adapted churches are so much fun. Check out The Church Brew Works in Pittsburgh, for one great example.
I am a confirmed Catholic Catholic who believes sacred spaces are worth respecting. The Church Brew Works felt like the opposite of sacrilege when I visited. They were honoring the space, and all who prayed there, by keeping the floors shined, the stained glass clean, and the souls walking through the doors seeking some form of deliverance.
“No (hang-ups) at all from me,” said Unitarian Church member Ron Lovell. “(It’s) not that different than the transition of the Monastery.”
Voices in the community have come out both for and against the project. The Help bring Champion Brewery to Norfolk, VA! Change.org petition has close to 500 supporters at this moment. Some Mowbray Arch residents have spoken out against the project.
Cannon Moss, who lives within a few blocks, does not believe the brewery is a good fit for his historic neighborhood.
“Can you imagine coming home from work and not having a place to park?” he asked. “We’ve been told this is not a production and distribution facility. Which means they have to pack the place and try to sell as much beer as possible.”
Ray Gregory, the neighborhood resident who has been the most vocal force against the Hague Bridge love locks, has been spreading a fear of things like “drunk drivers cruising the hood” in emails to neighbors and city officials.
“My house is probably far enough away from the old church that I won’t be personally bothered — unless maybe some drunken brewery patron runs me down in his car as I’m walking my dog late one night,” Gregory wrote me.
Such talk hits me as hyperbolic.
And “we’re not in the middle of a corn field in Suffolk,” as Todd pointed out.
The church is in the opposite of a corn field; it is in the urban core for the 37th largest metro in America. The people who brought property in that neighborhood made a bet that those properties would rise in value as density and vibrancy increased. This project means they’re winning. With Buddy Gaddams planning to develop two more residential projects in the neighborhood, an additional apartment complex on the way, and numerous other density-building projects in the pipeline, the area’s destiny as a more trafficked, tax-revenue-generating corridor of Norfolk feels sealed.
The city, and the neighborhood, should also consider the alternative to this project: the potential for the kind of boarded-up, graffiti marked downtown church that so often becomes a magnet for squatters.
“Let it go dark and see what it does to your property value,” Todd said. “I work in commercial real estate. Churches are the hardest to sell.”
I bet the same neighbors who are fighting this project today will be calling it a second home once it is open… and they realize how tame the concept really is. Breweries aren’t bars. I have never seen someone vomit or get into a fight at a Norfolk brewery. Not once. It isn’t like that. What I have seen, though, are folks finding their tribe, toasting one of the oldest celebratory drinks known to man.
It is the same crowd that fills the Chrysler campus for Third Thursdays that will be enjoying a casual drink at this Champion outpost.
“We… applaud you for the plans to provide an adaptive reuse of a property that has been vacant and on the market in excess of three years,” wrote Erik Neil, director of the Chrysler Museum, in a letter provided by Todd. “We look forward to welcoming a new neighbor who will further enhance Norfolk’s growing Arts District.
The Chrysler complex is packed with action every Third Thursday, to little detriment to the neighborhood, and obvious benefits.
In the same letter the Chrysler commits to offering the brewery parking spaces; the timing of the two businesses are ideal, with the Chrysler closing just as the brewery would be opening.
In another letter, nearby Baylor Management Company promises spots. Todd’s group plans to create 18 new spaces along Mowbray Arch at their own cost, which are in addition to the 13 existing spaces.
“I live in Hague Towers,” wrote Karen Gummo of the apartments adjacent to the church, on the Change.org petition, “and I am all for this brewery… Bring Champion to this site!!!!”
We’re always weighing values when deciding how to let our city evolve. No issue is so cut and dry. We have a great opportunity to set an example of creative adaptive reuse that both preserves a slice of Norfolk history, while growing our economy from the inside out. With all due respect to the nearby residents, long term I believe this will be a win for them, the church congregation, and the city.
The project is slated to go in front of the Planning Commission on July 27, and then to City Council thereafter. If you have an opinion on this matter, let your voice be heard.