DATE: Sunday, November 2, 1997 TAG: 9711020135 SECTION: LOCAL PAGE: B1 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: BY ERIKA REIF, STAFF WRITER DATELINE: NEWPORT NEWS LENGTH: 162 lines
If only Hilton Village had a parking problem. One big enough to cause shoppers, diners or movie-goers to circle the block - even once - like in Ghent. Or squeeze their cars onto side-streets like in Old Towne Alexandria and Carytown in Richmond.
An overflow of cars in Hilton would prove that the hours of painting and repairing - and five years of planning - had paid off.
So says architect Jeff Stodghill. His firm was hired by Newport News three years ago to design a facelift for Hilton Village's two commercial blocks, in the nation's first federally funded, planned community, built for shipyard workers during World War I.
``We would love to have a parking problem,'' Stodghill said of Hilton Village, the only place zoned as ``historic'' in the city, a neighborhood where Pulitzer-winning author William Styron grew up. ``We could solve a parking problem. Right now, we have a business problem.''
The problem, as Stodghill and others see it, is that businesses come and go without staying long enough to build up a clientele.
Owners don't invest in renovations to the 80-year-old structures, some with paint fading, gutters drooping and roof tiles chipping.
The city conducted market studies in the early 1990s that determined Hilton could be revamped, Stodghill said. To make that happen, the strip needed a makeover to bring out the area's historic character. And it needed a flurry of activity spilling onto the sidewalks to attract attention.
The groundwork has been laid, literally, with $2.04 million in brick sidewalks, curbside greenery, benches and lampposts that should be completed by December. The next phase will be an attempt to draw businesses, then shoppers, to an area that was heading toward gradual decline, Stodghill said.
The community began in 1918 as a nearly self-sufficient village three miles up a muddy road from Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. Shipyard workers arrived from across the country and helped build many of the original 501 homes.
Those English-style cottages - with steeply pitched slate roofs, small windows, arched doorways, and wooden front porches and rails - rented for less than $35 a month, and sold for about $1,400.
Over the decades, row houses that line Warwick Boulevard were converted into businesses. Porches were torn down and stucco fronts replaced with a hodgepodge of facades in brick or aluminum siding with display windows. Alterations were made freely until an architectural review board was formed in 1972, Stodghill said.
Many business owners in ``The Village'' live on the shaded, narrow sidestreets considered part of the Hilton area. They realize the quaint-looking shops and businesses on Warwick Boulevard attract attention from passers-by.
If that commercial stretch slides into decline, Hilton residential property values could drop as well. Volunteer neighborhood groups such as Citizens for Hilton Area Revitalization, or CHAR, are determined not to let that happen.
``CHAR is all about trying to strengthen and improve this area. To try to fend off the deterioration that seems to be creeping into the rest of the city,'' said Stodghill, a past president of the citizens group.
He would like to see Hilton be as successful as Olde Towne in Portsmouth, where renewal efforts have been sustained for 15 years. Olde Towne has become the pedestrian neighborhood that Hilton residents would like to bring back.
There are also similarities to Ghent's revitalization in the 1980s. Hilton and Ghent are commercial neighborhoods in historic settings that run alongside a stable residential neighborhood, Stodghill said.
For Hilton, he envisions a mix of businesses like the ones in Ghent, but on a smaller scale. The Hilton area could support an arts movie theater such as Ghent's Naro Expanded Cinema, he said. But there are significant differences.
``Ghent has access to a very energetic urban core and we don't,'' he said.
What Hilton can hope for is a return to a Main Street feel, more casual and less intense than is found in bigger cities.
CHAR may hire a full-time retail manager whose job would be to bring in more permanent businesses. The volunteer organization is also forming a for-profit, real estate investment group that plans to buy and renovate buildings, then lease or sell them to businesses.
The most visible change so far is the nearly completed streetscape project. Cracked and weedy sidewalks were ripped out and replaced with brick walks in shades of brown. New curbside planters have been filled with red begonias and Zelkova trees.
Most of the funding came from federal grants, with the remainder from city funds.
Al Riutort, the city's manager of comprehensive planning, says the residents had done their homework. ``We were ready to move when the grants became available,'' Riutort said about the federal grant, for which there is much competition.
And residents get things done, as Del. Alan Diamonstein, D-Newport News, pointed out. Diamonstein, who is in a fierce race against Republican Allen Face, was in the Hilton portion of his district in June helping volunteers spruce up several storefronts with a coat of paint.
``They're vocal in a constructive way and they do an awful lot on their own,'' he said.
It was the owner of Hilton Village Goldsmith, Faye Goad Minor, who designed and sold Village logo pins to raise money for tidying a run-down parking lot.
``I was quite appalled that a historic area was going by the wayside, when we should be restoring historic areas,'' Minor said, referring to Hilton's nomination to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969.
Since buying her shop in 1988, Minor says she has invested $30,000 in its interior, which demonstrates her faith in Hilton's ``really fantastic'' future. ``It just takes time,'' she says.
Other owners are banking on that, too. One block over, Alex Pasquier, the owner of Pasquier House of Art, bought a duplex in 1996 that he turned into an art gallery and studio. He says he could have had business right away if he had opened in a shopping mall. But he is watching traffic gradually increase as renovations improve the walkways and more businesses move in.
More than 100 properties are on the commercial strip, though several are rented as residences. The businesses include professional offices, a coffee shop, an ice cream parlor, a beauty parlor, jewelry and craft shops, second-hand stores, and a pawn shop. It even has a community playhouse, which has performed ``Kiss Me Kate'' by Cole Porter and ``Private Lives'' by Noel Coward.
Pasquier and other owners would like to see more specialty shops move in: gift shops, bookstores, bakeries, a women's boutique to complement the Beecroft and Bull Ltd. men's store, a wine and cheese shop, and an upscale restaurant.
When this happens - within perhaps five or 10 years, Pasquier predicts - ``You'll see people walking by and walking in.''
City Planning Director Paul Miller said his department is encouraging landlords to spruce up their places through a loan-interest loan program.
``To be more active, it has to be a showpiece,'' Miller said of Hilton's commercial district. ``It has to be attractive, yet business-wise. Commercial rents have to come from sales.''
Rufus Hopkins and his wife, Jerri, have owned Plantiques collectibles shop in Hilton since 1978, and believe that businesses with ``staying power'' are the key to making the commercial area work. In five years, the `For Lease' signs will be gone, Rufus said. There will be a waiting list for businesses wanting space.
``I think we're just trying to get our own identity over here. We're not trying to copy anybody,'' Hopkins said. ``I hope people will try to copy us after a while. I hope it's that successful.''
CHAR and other groups generate public interest through street fairs, art shows and festivals. And they stay in touch with the political players.
``What we're really looking for is the best relationship we can get from here to City Hall to City Council to Richmond,'' architect Stodghill said. ``We need a better relationship with the people that make financial decisions that could affect us.''
Politicians and city officials are often invited to speak at local meetings.
In summer, there is ``Politics on the Boulevard.'' Dreamed up by Hilton native Bennett Wilson, it is a forum for local politicians to speak and answer questions. Speakers perched on the actual soapbox have included city treasury candidates Mary Oder and Marty Eubank recently to mayors, delegates and congressman.
State Sen. Martin ``Marty'' Williams, R-Newport News, was the first speaker, more than a year ago. He has supported the community's improvement efforts since serving as the city's vice mayor in the early 1990s.
``It's a real together community,'' said Williams, whose house near the James River is the fifth he has owned in the area. ``You're dropping in and seeing people and meeting people in the street. It's something worth preserving for everybody, not just for Hilton residents.'' ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MARTIN SMITH-RODDEN/The Virginian-Pilot
Newport News architect Jeff Stodghill designed much of the
renovation of Hilton Village, including the sidewalks and trees that
line the historic neighborhood's stretch of Warwick Boulevard.
MARTIN SMITH-RODDEN/The Virginian-Pilot
Jerri and Rufus Hopkins, the proprietors of Plantiques in Hilton
Village, have been neighborhood merchants since 1978. They believe
businesses that stick around are the key to the success of the
commercial area, which is in Newport News.
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