NORFOLK — In a quiet residential neighborhood near Booker T. Washington High School, a towering industrial site looms. Gray, painted sheds were overgrown with vines and underbrush, and rusted side panels fell off in some places.
The 18-acre eyesore was once owned by Globe Iron Construction Co., a steel fabrication company that played a key role in rebuilding downtown Norfolk and the Hampton Road Bridge-Tunnel. But the structure has remained vacant since the company closed in 2012.
Now the city of Norfolk wants to redevelop the land, potentially with new homes or a new primary school. But there is a big problem: the site can be dangerous for the people who live there.
That’s why the city is working with the United States Environmental Protection Agency to study and possibly redevelop the property using federal brownfields assistance funds. A brownfield site is a site whose reuse may be complicated by the presence of a hazardous, polluting or contaminating substance.
The federal aid will help the city redevelop the site “in an environmentally responsible way,” Norfolk spokeswoman Kelly Straub said.
Councilwoman Mamie Johnson, who represents the area, said she wanted to replace Globe Iron with much-needed new housing. But she said that can’t happen until all the pollutants are cleaned up.
“Nothing will be done unless we are absolutely sure this is a safe site,” Johnson said.
The old steelworks is in Bruce’s Park, a residential area near the intersection of Princess Anne Road and Tidewater Drive.
The city council adopted a neighborhood project for the area in 2021 which calls for Globe Iron to be demolished and replaced with housing or a possible relocation of Jacox Elementary School, just around the corner.
The plan indicated that the industrial uses would be incompatible with the surrounding neighborhood.
“Moving away from the idea of industrial uses here … is clearly appropriate and supports community building efforts to strengthen the neighborhood,” the plan states.
If the site is approved for residential development, Johnson said she wants the city to look for “missing middle” housing, such as duplexes, triplexes or townhouses that are more affordable than single-family homes. She said the site could also accommodate commercial uses or a new school in addition to new homes.
The redevelopment of the property has been underway for over a decade.
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Globe Iron was a 90-year-old family institution that supplied structural steel to several major Hampton Roads buildings and infrastructure projects. The company fell on hard times during the Great Recession and filed for bankruptcy.
When it closed in 2012, the plant was sold at auction. Businessman Bill DeSteph, now a Virginia state senator, bought it for $1.8 million, about half of its assessed value at the time.
DeSteph said he spent years trying to get approval for a project at the site, including a failed bid for a recycling center, but nothing materialized. Ultimately, he said he and city officials had “philosophical differences” over how it should be redeveloped, and no deal was ever reached.
“I tried to do residential. The city wouldn’t approve of it. I tried to do industrial. I couldn’t get city approval. Everything I tried I failed to get them approved. So I said, ‘Well, why don’t you buy it for me then?’ “, DeSteph said. “And that’s pretty much what happened.
In 2020, the City of Norfolk purchased Globe Iron from DeSteph in 2020 for $5.5 million, almost three times what he paid.
DeSteph also claims there are no environmental issues at the site. He said he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on environmental assessments that came to nothing and got rid of dozens of 55-gallon drums containing hazardous waste.
Daniel Berti, [email protected]